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UNRWA Must Go

It was John F. Kennedy who put it best. The United Nations, he said, was established to create “world law in the age of self-determination – as opposed to world war in the age of mass extermination.” This is the noble purpose that the UN was supposed to serve. In an ideal world, the UN would have facilitated global peace and protected human rights by isolating regimes that make a mockery of the UN Charter. It would have mobilised the most liberal and democratic amongst the nations and upheld the rule of international law without bias or debilitating hypocrisy. It would have defended the right of free nations to defend themselves against the genocidal terrorism of their neighbors, and demanded that groups such as Hamas surrender and release the innocent people they hold in captivity. The problem is that we do not live in an ideal world — far from it.

True, the UN is not all bad. Its children’s organisation, UNICEF, has provided education and a path to a better life for millions, including the present UN secretary general. Meanwhile, the UN’s World Food Program has provided clean water and food in humanitarian zones ranging from Yemen to Sudan, where over 25 million have been internally displaced during the last year alone. And yet. Eighty years on from its founding, the UN has also become a sprawling, hypocritical and corrupt bureaucracy. Indeed, it has become exactly what its creators feared it would: a true reflection of the international community, warts and all. It has infuriated with its empowering of despots, its selective application of international law, and its institutional cover-ups of corruption and terrorism. 

U.N. peacekeepers caused a cholera epidemic in Haiti and committed horrific sexual abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.N.’s oil-for-food program for Iraq became a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme which Saddam Hussein exploited to evade international sanctions. Even worse, the UN General Assembly has been reduced to an endless loop of anti-Israel denunciations, impervious to both history and the facts on the ground. Over the past decade, the UNGA has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than all other nations combined, including Syria which used chemical weapons to kill three-hundred thousand of its own people during the civil war. Abba Eban, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, put it most succinctly when he quipped: “If Algeria introduced a resolution that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13, with 26 abstentions.” 

It is ironic that an organisation created on the ashes of the Holocaust has become the epi-center of antisemitism. Despite its moral beginnings, the UN has become infected by the pernicious scourge of bigotry — and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (or UNRWA) has become the emblem of this deep moral rot. Like the entire UN system, it started with a noble mission: to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to the refugees of Israel’s War for Independence, Jewish and Palestinian. Its main duties were constructing temporary shelters and providing essential food to the families that left their homes during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. However, it too has fallen victim to the crucible of terror and jihadism in which it operates. As Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group noted over a decade ago, “In order for UNRWA to survive, they accept [Hamas’s] conditions because they want to continue their activities.”

Hamas has spent decades insinuating itself amongst the civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which includes UNRWA as the preeminent supplier of humanitarian aid. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that UNRWA’s textbooks serve as manifestos for jihad against Israel, or that its staffers directly participated in the October 7 attacks. Per Israeli intelligence, at least twelve staffers participated in the most deadly massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — and this is just the tip of the iceberg (floating atop the vast neptune of hate and duplicity that is UNRWA).

The process of reforming UNRWA—or of abolishing it altogether—should start with extensive vetting procedures for staff and textbooks, but it must not end there. The fundamental problem with the agency is not that it has been infiltrated by Hamas and affiliated factions, but rather that it may be the only agency specifically designed to eternalise Palestinian grievance. The United Nations has two agencies dedicated to the plight of refugees. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for the well-being of nearly all the world’s more than thirty million refugees, with a mandate to help them resettle in third countries. The other is UNRWA; no other group except for the Palestinians gets their own permanent agency. At the same time, no other refugee community—besides the Palestinians—can pass their refugee status across generations. Only about twenty-thousand of the Palestinians displaced in 1948 remain, but over five million Palestinians, living inside and outside of the occupied territories, are currently registered as refugees. 

Why? Responsibility lies—at least partly—with neighboring Arab states such as Lebanon and Syria, which cruelly refused to grant Palestinians citizenship and even barred them from certain professions. This meant that Palestinians were denied the same opportunity to resettle as the many millions of other people who were displaced during the long twentieth century. The end of World War II ushered the expulsion of some two million ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe, primarily from Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Jews were kicked out of Arab countries at the time of Israel’s founding. Nearly all of these communities found new lives in new countries — except for the Palestinians. They have been confined to an endemic refugee status as a means of both delegitimising Israel and preserving the unreasonable demand that Israel be destroyed through the repatriation of Palestinians to their “homes” in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Ashkelon.

The dream of a mass “return” for millions of Palestinians represents an effort to dramatically alter Israel’s Jewish/non-Jewish demographic balance — namely, to seek a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, and to turn Israel into a second Palestinian state through obtaining a numerical majority. It is the dream that torpedoed efforts at a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2000, 2008 and 2020. It is also a dream kindled by Arab states – and UNRWA as their accomplice. 

There are no panaceas to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it decidedly cannot be solved as long as UNRWA continues to operate as it has over the past seventy-five years. Rather than assist the resettlement of Palestinians in their host countries, the agency has metamorphosed into a pseudo-government which provides non-emergency services to millions of Palestinian “refugees,” the vast majority of whom have never set foot in Israel. UNRWA has made itself an obstacle to peace and one amongst many sources of continued incitement against Israel and the Jewish people. 

It must be abolished and replaced when the dust of this horrific war finally settles.

About the Author
Joe Beare is an alumnus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He served as the President of Emory's Meor club and worked with the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel on a range of Israel-related papers, articles and educational initiatives. Along with his commitment to Israel advocacy and scholarship, Beare captained Emory's Varsity Soccer Team and won a gold medal at the European Maccabi Games in 2019.