Truth is a rare commodity when it comes to international organizations. This is all the more so when it comes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the internationally funded welfare organization for Palestinians.
For decades critics have pointed to UNRWA's promotion of the Palestinian "right of return" that rejects the existence of Israel, its employment of terrorists, and the antisemitism embedded in its school curriculums. UNRWA's own employees have spoken out on these and other problems both in the media and before Congressional committees. President Trump defunded UNRWA but the flow of money was restored by the Biden Administration.
Now, as it has for 70 years, the organization is pleading poverty and demanding emergency funding. But too few are willing to question the existence of a unique refugee relief operation that redefined its mission in order to serve second and third generation descendants of actual refugees, and which provides the functions that the Palestinian Authority should, namely health and education.
For one thing, too much money and too many careers are at stake. Its leaders, therefore, cannot in any way jeopardize the narrative of UNRWA's indispensability to the perpetual Palestinian "refugees" who are allegedly faced with continued dispossession and unrelenting Israeli violence.
The curriculum taught in UNRWA schools is also shaped by Hamas, which has been rejecting textbooks that failed to tout "armed resistance" as too "peaceful." A video posted by an UNRWA school in the West Bank celebrating the October 7 "jihad warriors" who slaughtered Israelis is another example. Gaza cannot be rebuilt at Western expense only to return to this perverse status quo.
At least half of Gaza's 2 million inhabitants claim refugee status. These Gazans receive food rations and other assistance through the United Nations, including medicine, education, and even jobs via UNRWA. The overwhelming majority of its employees in Gaza belong to the Hamas-linked trade union. An unknown number of employees are actual Hamas fighters.
So it's not surprising that UNRWA staffers celebrated October 7th. Ebrahim Al Azaiza has a Facebook page that says he works for UNRWA and lives in Gaza City. He posted a video showing cars burning following a rocket strike that hit an Israeli city, which he captioned with the words, "What a splendid sight!," along with happy emojis and fire emojis.
Afaf Talab, another Gaza-based UNRWA teacher living in Gaza City, posted a video on his Facebook page on November 4 in which the Hamas massacre was described as the "first real victory" on the way to "liberating" all of Palestine, while praising the destruction of Israeli communities with "1,000 men in 3 hours" causing "entire cities emptied out in one night."
Sarah Alderawy, another UNRWA employee who works as an English-language teacher and lives in Gaza City, posted a video clip to her Facebook page showing Hamas terrorists in a pickup truck driving along the streets of an Israeli city, shooting at Israeli cars, as well as fires resulting from rocket attacks on Israel.
The video was accompanied by a Quranic verse stating, "We will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them in humiliation, and they will be debased."
The interests of the refugees and UNRWA are so intertwined that UNRWA is staffed mainly by local Palestinians — more than 30,000 of them — with only about 100 international United Nations professionals. While the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Fund) avoid employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, UNRWA does not make this distinction.
While the refugees benefit from UNRWA, the organization benefits more from the refugees. These refugees are the organization's raison d'etre. UNRWA has zero incentive to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem; ending the refugee problem would render the agency obsolete.
Since 2006 UNRWA has been counted on by Hamas and UNRWA is only too eager to provide the services that Hamas does not, cannot, or chooses not to. Hamas can continue to divert international monies that should be earmarked for food or electricity to the stockpiling of weapons and the creation of anti-Israel or anti-American propaganda as long as UNRWA provides the services that the negligent Hamas government should fulfill. In this way, UNRWA is undermining the Western strategy of weakening the Hamas government in Gaza to encourage the return of Palestinian Authority rule under President Mahmoud Abbas.
UNRWA does not hide this. As then Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd stated in 2005 after Israel's disengagement from Gaza, UNRWA's goal "is to reconstruct houses, create jobs, and micro-financing." It has been filling this role since 1991, when UNRWA launched its micro-finance and micro-enterprise program (MMP) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Indeed, UNRWA provides services that the Palestinian economic ministry or treasury should handle. UNRWA, originally conceived as a temporary apparatus to ease the refugees' economic plight more than a half-century ago, has been providing the Palestinians of Gaza (as well as the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) with critical economic services for a decade so that the Palestinian government, whether Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, can continue to concentrate on "resistance."
Now, as Israeli forces penetrate further into Gaza, finding Hamas tunnels next to UNRWA facilities, there is an opportunity to fundamentally confront the problem.
Asaf Romirowsky is the Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). Alex Joffe is the Director of Strategic Initiatives of ASMEA.