Three times in the last two weeks, UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — has acknowledged finding stockpiles of rockets in its schools in Gaza. On the first occasion, according to Israel, it promptly gave the rockets back to Hamas. A “complete falsehood,” UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness said in an Israeli Channel 2 interview on Thursday night. As anywhere else in the world, “the local bomb disposal experts are called in and they are taken away,” he said.
What UNRWA did with the weaponry it found on its premises is far from the worst of Israel’s problems with the UN agency, however. The extent of the problem is rooted in the fact that UNRWA’s actual name is not, as widely believed, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — a moniker that would imply an organization with worldwide responsibilities. UNRWA’s full name is the “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.” It has existed since 1949, that is, to look after Palestinian refugees only, and the scale and scope of its mandate — uniquely for a UN refugee organization — has been expanding continuously day after day, thanks to its definition of what constitutes a Palestinian refugee.
Broadly speaking, everywhere but here, the UN defines a refugee as someone who, credibly fearing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, and so on, is outside his country or former habitual residence. If the normal UN definition had been applied to the estimated 650,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what became Israel in the late 1940s, the Palestinian refugee problem today would extend to the relatively few survivors among those 650,000 — a number estimated in the low tens of thousands. Were that the case, one of the key “final status” issues of profound dispute between Israel and the Palestinians would become instantly manageable, clearing a central obstacle to the two-state solution that some Palestinians, many in Israel, and the UN, ostensibly seek so urgently.
With UNRWA in place, it is Israel’s contention that Hamas was that much freer to redirect resources to tunnel construction and rocket manufacture, and all other aspects of the pernicious military mechanism Israeli troops are now doing their best to uproot
But UNRWA works according to a different definition from the UN’s main High Commissioner for Refugees. It provides assistance not only for those remaining 1940s refugees, and for those who lost home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1967 war, but also — here’s the crucial bit — for their descendants.
Thus, rather than a refugee problem in the low of tens of thousands, there are today five to six million Palestinian “refugees” — impossibly awaiting a “return” to Israel. And their healthcare, social services and, critically, education is funded via UNRWA.
As Israel sees it, an organization ostensibly designed to resolve a problem became the organization perpetuating the problem.
Israeli officials argue privately that UNRWA simply should not exist. They say Palestinian refugees should be defined and treated like any other refugee group around the world. They say UNRWA serves a Palestinian narrative fundamentally intolerant of Israel’s existence. They say UNRWA disseminates a relentless, one-sided, emotional and problematic message that is implicitly anti-Israel.
(Gunness in his Thursday Israeli TV interview was adamant that Israeli bombs hit all the UN facilities where Gazans have died in recent days, even though Israel has denied a role in some of the incidents, and that Gaza militants were not responsible. Asked how Israel ought to respond to being terrorized by Hamas, he answered: “Making peace is the only way forward.” The day before, overwhelmed, Gunness wept while on screen at the end of an Al-Jazeera interview about the situation in Gaza and the deaths of a reported 15 people in the Israeli shelling of a UN school in Jabaliya, having declared: “The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied. And it’s appalling.”)
Supporters of Israel have repeatedly criticized the curriculum taught in UNRWA schools. Israel has charged in the past that UNRWA ambulances were abused by Hamas gunmen. It has charged that UNRWA employed Hamas members on its vast, 30,000-strong payroll (five times the staff of the UNHCR, with its global responsibilities), an allegation that one previous UNRWA commissioner-general seemed to acknowledge.
And most pertinently amid the Israel-Hamas war, it is Israel’s contention that UNRWA’s work indirectly facilitates both Hamas’s rule over Gaza and its war effort. With UNRWA in place to grapple with so many Gazans’ basic needs, Hamas was that much freer to redirect resources to tunnel construction and rocket manufacture, and all other aspects of the pernicious and sophisticated military mechanism Israeli troops are now doing their best to uproot.
Israeli officials complain privately that the ongoing dialogue Jerusalem pursues with the international community about all this is unproductive, that there is no readiness to tackle the problematics of UNRWA — not from the EU, not from Japan, not even from the US. The sole exception is Canada, which used to provide 10% of UNRWA’s budget, but redirected that funding, four years ago, to what it called “specific projects in the Palestinian Authority that will ensure accountability and foster democracy in the PA.”
You might assume, given that litany of complaints and frustrations, that Israel is doing everything in its (limited) power to have UNRWA closed down. If so, you’d be mistaken. Israel is not doing anything of the kind. Politically, it would like nothing better. But practically, well, that’s another story altogether.
Three and a half weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, UNRWA is in crisis, and Israel is concerned. UNRWA’s facilities are being caught up in the conflict — almost inevitably given that Hamas emplaced its rocket launchers, terror tunnel openings and the rest of its military infrastructure throughout residential Gaza. And even though Israel is routinely blamed, and thus demonized, for any harm that comes to UNRWA facilities, personnel, and those who have taken shelter there — harm that originates in that Hamas urban warfare strategy — Israel is worried on UNRWA’s behalf too.
Israel takes into account that UNRWA, like all international organizations operating in Gaza, is being closely watched by Hamas for signs that it is not sufficiently critical of Israel.
Most importantly, UNRWA has 225,000 internally displaced Palestinians under its care, and Israel worries that it just can’t cope.
Because that’s the other side of the UNRWA story.
True, Israel thinks UNRWA should not exist. That it perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. That it facilitates the maintenance and deepening of a grievance that could otherwise be more effectively addressed, and thus reduces the possibility of better Israeli-Palestinian relations.
But if UNRWA didn’t exist, who would take care of all those displaced Gazans right now? Who, even in calmer times, would provide humanitarian assistance to the vast “refugee” community in Gaza and the West Bank? Yes, all kinds of other countries and organizations could step in. But who would? And if the answer is nobody, then where would that leave Israel?
To date, Israel has opted not to risk discovering the answer to that question. So it continues privately to complain about UNRWA, and complain about the failure of the international community to abolish UNRWA or remake its mandate. But it has never launched a no-holds-barred effort to bring UNRWA down. It has not mustered all its forces in pursuit of that goal. It hasn’t chosen to try to smash UNRWA.
A microcosm, you might say, of Israel’s uncertain stance as regards the terrorist government in whose Gaza territory, and under whose vicious eye, UNRWA operates: Hamas.