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What’s Wrong with UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been in the news after key donor countries suspended funding to the organization. The agency was created in 1950 to implement UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which called for “the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees.” Since then, UNRWA has not resettled or rehabilitated a single refugee. Rather, it has become one of the United Nations’ largest agencies, serving millions of Palestinians in five countries. It provides food, shelter, education, and medical services, and – as has become glaringly obvious recently – is a breeding ground for terrorists.

What went wrong? The answer can be found on multiple fronts: institutional failures, ideological bias, long-time ties to terrorism, and complicity in the October 7 atrocities.

Institutionally and structurally, UNRWA is flawed because its de-facto mission is to create refugees and to perpetuate their victimhood rather than to resettle, rehabilitate, or reintegrate them. Since the creation of the agency in 1950, it has repeatedly redefined who qualifies as a “Palestine Refugee.” An original population of about 750,000 civilians displaced during the 1948 war between the newly reestablished state of Israel and its neighbors has ballooned to 5.9 million. This includes Palestinians living under Palestinian rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (refugees in their own country?), those who have other citizenship (“refugees” who are citizens and residents of Jordan, the U.S., or any other country!), and all generations of descendants of those displaced 75 years ago. So a Palestinian baby born today in Gaza can be a “refugee” from a place that her parents, grandparents, and possibly even great grandparents have never been. UNRWA’s goals are political, not humanitarian. It has a huge staff and budget, spending about 5 times as much with a staff 30 times higher (!) per refugee than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency that has repatriated or settled tens of millions of actual refugees since WWII.

Ideologically, UNRWA is committed to the notion of “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees (as broadly defined). This imagined “right,” which doesn’t exist in international law or for any other refugee population, is the dream of destroying Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian/Arab polity. Of course, that will never happen; it’s a pipe dream at best, a motivator to violence at worst. It is also what prevents Palestinians from accepting a two-state solution to end the conflict with Israel. (The best analysis of this issue is a 2020 book by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, “The War of Return.”) A March 2023 report to the U.S. Congress identified over 200 UNRWA teachers who promoted hate and violence, including distributing hateful content to students.

UNRWA’s long-term ties to Hamas and other terrorist organizations are well documented. UNRWA textbooks glorify the murder of Jews. A Reuters video from 2004 showed 5 armed terrorists escaping in an UNRWA ambulance after killing 6 Israeli soldiers. In 2022, the State Department identified hundreds of cases where UNRWA facilities and staff were involved in “armed incursions,” tunnel construction, weapons storage, firing rockets, and other “conflict-related incidents.” An IDF brigade commander told a reporter last week that in his troops’ operations in Gaza, “There is a not an UNRWA site, school, mosque, or kindergarten in which we didn’t find weapons. None.”

In addition to the dozen UNRWA staffers who directly took part in the October 7 massacre and kidnapping, at least 190 employees are members of terrorist groups, and thousands more cheered the atrocities on social media. One Israeli hostage was locked up for 50 days in the attic of an UNRWA teacher’s home. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that about 1,200 UNRWA employees – or 10% of its staff members in Gaza – have ties to Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas commandeers fuel and medical equipment delivered to UNRWA. Last week the IDF released letters from Hamas to the Gaza minister of education requesting to excuse teachers from work because they are essential to Hamas’ war effort. So the problem with UNRWA is not some “bad apples,” as the organization and some of its apologists like to claim, but an organization rotten to its very core.

UNRWA is a political entity pretending to be a humanitarian organization, in the same way that Hamas is a terrorist organization masquerading as a political entity. Donor countries are right to withhold funding from an agency that creates refugees, promotes violence, and is directly complicit in the October 7 attacks.

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For additional information, see:

  • January 30 briefing by Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy, who says that UNRWA “has been hijacked by Hamas, and is the mechanism Hamas uses to launder its propaganda.”
  • Marcus Sheff of IMPACT-se interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper. Scheff draws a direct link from the UNRWA textbooks – funded by international donors – and the events of October 7.
  • A Congressional hearing at a joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs subcommittees on Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations and the Oversight & Accountability. (The testimony of Hillel Neuer of UN Watch is especially compelling.)
  • An UNRWA fact sheet from the American Jewish Committee
About the Author
Nevet Basker is the founder and director of Broader View, an Israel Resource Center. Born and raised in Israel and now based in Seattle, Washington, she is an educator, writer, public speaker, and policy adviser specializing in modern-day Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her work emphasizes respectful discourse and community-building, focused on shared values and an inclusive collective identity.
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