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UNRWA: Illegal To Fund, Illegal Not To Fund. Can Both Sides Be Right?

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Photo by Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash

Two lawsuits were recently filed about the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body charged with assisting Palestinian refugees. One, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), seeks to compel Germany to give UNRWA money and says any country that stops funding UNRWA is complicit in genocide. The other, filed in US District Court, says the exact opposite. It asks the court to forbid the United States from funding UNRWA and says any country that does so is aiding atrocities and destroying hope for peace in the Middle East. What’s going on?

The ICJ Lawsuit

The ICJ suit was filed against Germany by Nicaragua. Nicaragua details the suffering of Gaza residents during the current war, then claims that Germany’s decision to cut UNRWA funding after Israel’s allegation that UNRWA employees took part in the Oct. 7th attacks will have devastating effects on the Palestinian population. Regarding Germany’s reason for ending funding, Nicaragua states, “Israel did not provide and has not provided to UNRWA, or the international community, any evidence to substantiate its allegations, and the purported intelligence has not been independently verified and has even been assessed as having a level of “low confidence.” It goes on to state that over two million people depend on UNRWA for their sheer survival and UNRWA’s work cannot be replaced by any other agency at this time.

The Lawsuit in the US

The US lawsuit was filed on behalf of approximately 8000 plaintiffs with the help of the Israeli legal organization Shurat Hadin. It notes that in addition to the UNRWA employees directly involved in the Oct. 7th attack, “the IDF found rocket launchers, missiles and tunnels inside and underneath UNRWA’s facilities. They found Hamas’s servers inside UNRWA’s headquarters. This is evidence of the pivotal role that UNRWA plays in Hamas’s operations.”

Shurat Hadin founder Nitsana Darshan-Leitner raises additional, more general, complaints about UNRWA. She says that it has been a disaster for both Israel and the Palestinians. This is because UNRWA designated Palestinians as refugees indefinitely, and makes no attempt at resettlement. She says that telling Palestinians that they will someday return to Tel-Aviv, Acre, and Haifa perpetuates the conflict and robs Palestinians of the opportunity for a better life.

Could They Both Be Right?

So who’s right? Is cutting off UNRWA’s funding during the current crisis morally repugnant, condemning a huge number of Palestinians to suffering and death? Or is it reprehensible to continue funding an organization that facilitates terrorism and is itself an obstacle to peace in the Middle East?

Many of us might intuitively come down on one side or the other. But before taking sides, let’s entertain the possibility that while these positions seem to be polar opposites, they could actually both be right.

Even if it’s true (as Israel asserts and many believe) that lots of UNRWA employees are also part of Hamas, Hamas uses UNRWA facilities to shelter its weapons, and some UNRWA employees participated on Oct. 7th, that doesn’t mean that UNRWA doesn’t also provide vital food and medical assistance for the Palestinian population. Both could be correct.

And even if UNRWA is irreplaceable in providing essential aid at this time, as Nicaragua says, that doesn’t mean that many of its employees aren’t Hamas members, that its education system doesn’t glorify terrorism and isn’t filled with anti-Israel propaganda, or that its policy of never resettling Palestinian refugees hasn’t been harmful and misguided all these years. Those things could both be true.

A Difficult Choice

Unfortunately, if that’s the case, it leaves us facing a very muddled and confusing choice. Should we support an agency that fills a vital role providing for Palestinians’ basic needs, even though it also aids terrorists, incites against Israel, and perpetuates the conflict in the Middle East? Or should we take a stand against such an agency and cut off its funds even at a time of crisis? While this would be a blow to Hamas and perhaps a step that is long overdue in light of UNRWA’s offensive resettlement and educational policies, is it still the right thing to do if the consequence is also condemning huge numbers of people to starvation and disease?

Of course, there is a factual disagreement here. There are different opinions about the exact extent of UNRWA’s ties to Hamas, to what degree Hamas uses UNRWA facilities, and what percentage of UNRWA employees are also Hamas members. Especially in the midst of the current crisis, those details will be hard to figure out.

But getting to the bottom of all that may not be so important. The debate here isn’t primarily factual or legal, it’s moral. I’m sure people will disagree about the answer, but one thing seems certain. No matter what judges in the Hague or Washington DC decide, that won’t be the best or final answer. Questions about morality can’t be resolved properly by a court.

About the Author
Shlomo Levin received Rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Yeshivat Hamivtar, and an M.A. in International Law and Human RIghts from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica. He is the author of the Human Rights Haggadah, which highlights human rights issues in the Passover story with Jewish and secular sources along and questions for discussion. Learn more at http://www.hrhaggadah.com.
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