In an op-ed for the Montgomery County Sentinel, AJIRI-BBI Executive Director Gil Kapen argues that UNRWA should have no post-war role in Gaza because of its horrendous track record and its nefarious promotion of conflict.
It is a shame that it took apparent active participation in murder and other violence by employees of the U.N. Agency called UNRWA for a long overdue harsh spotlight to be cast on its extremely destructive role. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) is the huge U.N. body (in fact it is the largest single U.N. agency of any kind) that caters only to Palestinian refugees (and descendants) from the 1948 war. All other refugees in the world are dealt with by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This anomalous situation has never been explained. But it is more than a mere curiosity. UNRWA has, for over seven decades, played a uniquely negative role in the Arab-Israeli conflict but has enjoyed absolute impunity while doing so. The recent revelations that employees of UNRWA not only celebrated the Hamas massacres against Israelis on Oct. 7 but in some cases, actively participated in its planning and execution, elicited shock and outrage from international donors. But it should not have been surprising.
In the course of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war (which occurred because Arab countries sought to violently prevent the creation of the State of Israel), some 750,000 Palestinians fled from their homes. UNRWA was created to provide humanitarian assistance to these people. But unlike in the case of any other refugees of that era or any time since, the Arab countries refused to allow Palestinians to be resettled in permanent homes. The purpose was to keep these people miserable and to use them to keep the conflict alive and to cast blame and aspersion on Israel.
Uniquely among all refugee populations in the world, Palestinians are allowed to pass refugee status to succeeding generations, to the point where, today, over 5 million Palestinians are considered refugees by the UN. Only some 30,000 actual refugees who fled their homes in 1948 are believed to still be alive. Needless to say, for example, none of the descendants of the 12 million Germans who were expelled from Poland after World War 2 consider themselves to be refugees.
With an annual budget of $1.1 billion (approximately one-third of which is provided by the United States), UNRWA has 30,000 employees. One of its main functions is education. For years, it has been well documented that UNRWA schools indoctrinate their students with hatred and resentment of Israel. Young children are taught that Israel is a usurper that stole their homes, to which they will one day return. Terrorists are glorified as “martyrs” and terrorist attacks are celebrated as heroic acts. As just one example, an elementary school grammar exercise reads “The Palestinians sacrifice their blood to liberate Jerusalem.” Another refers to a terrorist bus bombing in Israel as a “barbecue party.” The CEO of Impact-se, a think tank that published an extensive and exhaustive study of hate education promoted by UNRWA schools in Gaza, recently said: “We have been warning for years that Palestinian schools in Gaza and the West Bank have indoctrinated to extreme Jew hate and incited students to murder … what we saw was the result of the years and years of indoctrination.” It is indisputable that UNRWA has contributed mightily to murderous hatred and incitement of violence among generations of young Palestinians.
Besides this criminally negligent past and present, there has long been documented proof of actual UNRWA collaboration with Hamas terrorists. Both during the current war in Gaza and in previous rounds of conflict, UNRWA facilities were found to be used by Hamas to hide weapons, missile launchers and secret entrances to terrorist tunnels. UNRWA teachers have been exposed as supporters and collaborators of Hamas, including in the kidnapping and holding of hostages.
Despite this serious resume of egregious abuse and misbehavior, perhaps the most significant damage caused by UNRWA relates to its very existence. Of course, it is incredible and preposterous that 75 years later, millions of people are considered and treated as refugees, dependent on the charity of the international community. It is insulting to the Palestinian people to assume that they, alone among all peoples, are so incapable of uplifting themselves. The success and achievements of the Arab citizens of Israel (including, for example, one-third of all doctors in the country and one-half of all pharmacists) puts the lie to this condescending racism. But more importantly, the horrific violence we witnessed on Oct. 7 is indeed the direct result of 75 years of indoctrination to the effect that Israel is evil and temporary, that Palestinians are destined to return to their rightful homes (in Israel itself) and that all means of achieving that ultimate goal, violent as they may be, are legitimate and glorious. UNRWA, by its very existence, perpetuates this myth and encourages this evil.
It may be too much to hope that Western nations, who generously and unquestioningly have funded UNRWA for years, have finally seen the light due to the horrible revelations of murderous actions by UNRWA employees. Several countries, including the U.S., France and Canada, have suspended funding. But there is indeed a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which, of course, is the direct result of the war begun by Hamas, and pressure will be intense for the resumption of funding. Any humanitarian operations would much better be carried out by reputable nongovernmental organizations, uncompromised by terror and hatred. More importantly, in all the talk about the “day after” in Gaza and in any peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians, it is clear that UNRWA, with its horrendous track record and its nefarious promotion of conflict, should have no role to play.
Gil Kapen is the executive director of the American Jewish International Relations Institute-B’nai B’rith International (AJIRI-BBI).