By Casey Babb, February 7, 2024
In late January, 2024, it came to light that a dozen staff working with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) were directly involved with the barbaric Hamas-led terrorist attacks in Israel on October 7, 2023. Reports suggest the UNRWA employees participated in kidnappings, the distribution of ammunition, and murder – including the massacre at kibbutz Be’eri which left nearly 100 people dead.
Dispelling any suggestions that UNRWA had been infiltrated by a “few bad apples,” Israeli officials compiled an intelligence dossier indicating that roughly 10 percent of UNRWA employees – approximately 1,200 of the roughly 12,000 total – are either members of or have strong links to Islamic terrorist organizations. Further, Israel determined that 50 percent of all UNRWA employees have relatives with official ties to Hamas and other jihadi groups.
For many – and understandably so – this news has come as a shock. After all, UNRWA is a United Nations humanitarian agency charged with supporting Palestinian refugees. On the surface, especially for the vast majority of people who have no particular interest in UNRWA or the Middle East, it makes little sense why the agency would be so tangled up with terrorist organizations. Yet, for others, this news only validates what has been known all along: UNRWA has become a front organization for much of the Arab world with one underlying purpose – the undoing of the Jewish state. As renowned scholar of Israeli and Jewish affairs Dr. Einat Wilf recently remarked, “That [UNRWA] produces terrorists is a feature – not a bug.”
To understand all that is wrong with UNRWA we have to start at the beginning. In the immediate aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence – when Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon invaded Israel because of their unwillingness to accept a Jewish state, UNRWA was established as a temporary agency (emphasis on the word temporary) to – in their own words – “…carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.” Indeed, at the time, it was a noble cause.
Hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in the region – later to be known as Palestinians – had been displaced by the war, and the UN had stepped in to help alleviate their plight. The expectation – as was the case in many other instances of successfully resettling refugees – was that UNRWA would have a few years to complete its mission before shutting down. They had a clear objective – and once that objective had been completed – it would be time to move on.
Unfortunately, the Arab refugees, encouraged by leaders throughout the Arab world, had a different idea. After having refused the initial UN partition plan, which would have given them their own state in 1947, Palestinian Arabs refused any attempt at resettlement. In their view, doing so would not only admit defeat – but much worse – it would mean accepting the Jews were there to stay.
Within a matter of a few short years, it had become clear to countries funding UNRWA – namely the U.S. and the United Kingdom – that the programme was failing. Not only were the Arab refugees and their new host nations (Syria, Lebanon and Jordan) showing an unwillingness to pursue a strategy of self-sustainment – they were refusing to start anew in any substantive way. Rather than looking forward as virtually all other refugees had done (and continue to do) throughout history – the Palestinians continued looking back. Complicating matters was the fact that Arab nations considered these refugees both threatening to their internal security but also politically invaluable for their own strategic gain – two views which prevail today.
As such, countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria vehemently opposed UNRWA shutting down, and so by the early 1950’s, UNRWA found itself in a situation where A) it could not successfully complete the job it set out to do, and B) could not close up shop either. In many ways – it was a perfect situation for Arab leaders and for Palestinian refugees.
For starters, by refusing to let UNRWA dissolve, host Arab states in the Middle East were able to keep international aid money flowing into their countries for the poor Palestinians they themselves were unwilling to help. Moreover, the issue of the Palestinians served as a tremendous opportunity to avert the eyes of their citizens away from domestic failures and towards a common grievance presented on a silver platter – refugees and those evildoers in Jerusalem. At the same time, Arab states were also able to profit in public opinion by claiming to support and standby their suffering brethren – despite the fact they were intentionally preventing their resettlement and assimilation.
However, far and away the most valuable element of this whole mess to Arab nations and to the refugees themselves was the ability to keep the door open for a return to Israel – to ensure the sovereignty and security of the Jewish state remained in-question. This is at the heart of what is wrong with UNRWA and more crucially, what is at the very centre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today: the refusal of a group of refugees from the 1940’s to resettle, and the deliberate orchestration by Arab states and the refugees themselves to ensure generation after generation of their descendants maintain refugee status with the aim of reclaiming the entirety of Israel.
All told, for three-quarters of a century, UNRWA has transitioned away from being a legitimate humanitarian agency with a clear objective, to a political tool of Arab states, Palestinian “refugees,” and terrorist organizations that have used it to radicalize generations of Palestinians, maintain an endless flow of forever-refugees, and wage war on the Jewish state.
So, what needs to change? Well, most importantly, UNRWA needs to be shut down once and for all. While over a dozen countries – including Canada – have paused their funding of UNRWA in light of the agency’s connections to Hamas and October 7 – it is expected these payments (which are in the hundreds of millions per year) will resume in the not-too-distant future. This funding – and the unprecedented international support UNRWA receives – fuels and enables Palestinian delusion that there will be a great return of some sort while simultaneously ensuring Palestinians have no need to be accountable, responsible, or self-sufficient. In this sense, UNRWA is perhaps more damaging to Palestinians than it is to Israelis; it strips Palestinians of all they would need for a better future.
Shutting down UNRWA could – in theory – also lead to the most important thing needed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the deradicalization of Palestinians. For decades UNRWA has been largely responsible for the education systems of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – systems which include curricula that dehumanize Israelis and Jews, neglect to acknowledge Israel as a sovereign nation, and which glorify violence. Indeed, according to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, at least 100 terrorists who participated in the October 7 attacks were graduates of the UNRWA education system.
Going forward, politicians and international humanitarian groups need to pursue the painful task of ripping off the band-aid and finally being honest with themselves and with Palestinians – that there is no return and that they won’t get a do-over of the successive wars they waged and lost.
UNRWA hasn’t just failed miserably over the last 75-plus years, they’ve made a once solvable problem exponentially worse. We need to get real about this problem – we need to end UNRWA.
Dr. Casey Babb is a Fellow with both the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and the Royal United Services Institute in London, England. He teaches courses on terrorism and international security at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa.