How do you solve a problem like UNRWA?
A rare consensus appeared to emerge on Tuesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill, where both Democrats and Republicans seemed to agree that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East cannot continue to operate as it has.
While the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees handles every other refugee worldwide, UNRWA is the global body’s agency that is devoted solely to Palestinians, upon whom it bestows perpetual refugee status. (HCR focuses on settling refugees so that they and their families can improve their lot.)
The U.S. State Department announced on Friday that it was suspending certain future payments to UNRWA in light of accusations that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel. Although the Biden administration and the United Nations, among others, have insisted that the entire agency shouldn’t be maligned for a few bad actors, The Wall Street Journal reported that 10% of UNRWA’s staff members have terror ties.
On Tuesday, two subcommittees of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs heard testimony about UNRWA which ran about three hours long. Members of the Congress who discussed the U.N. agency with JNS were split on how the United States should handle it.
“Left, right, center. Everybody is of the mindset that UNRWA absolutely did unconscionable things, has certainly a large percentage of their employees that are either a part of Hamas or some terrorist organization or support Hamas or some other terrorist organization,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of its Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability, told JNS.
Mast, who told JNS that he is proud to be the only member of Congress to wear U.S. and Israeli military uniforms, and who visited injured IDF soldiers late last year, told JNS that members at the hearing did not dispute those facts about UNRWA.
“But what’s in dispute, amazingly, is that you still have people that will say, ‘I can’t defend Hamas, but I’m still going to find a way to show support for UNRWA,’” the congressman said. “That cannot be the way forward for Europe, for America, for the Middle East, for anybody,” he added.
Mast floated the UNRWA Elimination Act on Tuesday, which would fold the U.N. agency into the larger and more reputable High Commissioner for Refugees.
Much of Tuesday’s disagreements centered on whether a so-called alphabet soup of U.N. organizations on the ground in Gaza could jointly replace UNRWA. The United Nations has said that is impossible, given UNRWA’s infrastructure and institutional knowledge.
But UNRWA’s deep-rooted corruption, mismanagement, terror ties and political baggage make it irredeemable and beyond structural reforms, for Mast and others at Tuesday’s hearing.
A longtime U.N. critic, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told JNS that UNRWA “is committing wholesale child abuse against Palestinian youth.”
“It’s teaching them to hate every single day,” Smith said.
The New Jersey Republican filed a separate bill, the “Stop Support for UNRWA Act of 2024,” on Tuesday to defund and disband UNRWA, or any related entity or successor.
Smith told JNS about multiple visits to Palestinian-held areas, where students in UNRWA’s educational system spouted antisemitic propaganda and conspiracy theories.
“We’ve got to demand that the hate stops, and that’s what this bill will do,” Smith told JNS. “Necessity is the mother of invention. There’s no doubt we will get to a way of providing food, clothing, shelter and basic education that is free of antisemitism.”
‘Isn’t just a couple bad apples’
The ranking member on Mast’s subcommittee, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), pushed back repeatedly on the notion of defunding UNRWA permanently. Other Democrats were not so charitable.
“There’s overwhelming evidence that UNRWA was clearly flawed to the core,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) told JNS. “That isn’t just a couple bad apples. It is a systemic issue.”
The New Jersey Democrat is leading a letter that calls for the U.N. and UNRWA heads to resign. Hamas’s terror attack on Oct. 7 changed everything for moderate pro-Israel democrats like him, he told JNS.
“You’re going to see a bipartisan group of people say that it’s important to make sure that there’s humanitarian aid, and that people get an education. But there are other agencies to handle that and that it’s time for UNRWA to disappear,” Gottheimer predicted.
To those who say UNRWA is flawed but, essentially, too big to fail, Gottheimer says it’s time to pull the U.N. agency’s funding, as Washington and others have done.
“If you pull the funding, it’ll fall under its own weight, and it won’t matter what the secretary-general of the U.N. says because he’s obviously biased on the issue,” Gottheimer told JNS.
Whatever replaces UNRWA, there must not be special privileges for Palestinians, as they have received under UNRWA’s mandate, Mast told JNS. UNRWA is the only U.N. agency to see descendants of refugees as refugees in perpetuity. UNRWA is also unique in the U.N. suite of agencies for its 40% of local employees, rather than staff drawn more from U.N. professional staff. That risks UNRWA becoming a kind of jobs bank in Gaza, which could explain the ties of many of its staff with local terror groups.
“The end result should be that you’re not employing the same percentage of local individuals when you’re dealing with Palestinians, recognizing that that’s likely resulted in 10% to 15% of the workforce being associated with Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Lion’s Den—take your pick of terrorist organizations,” Mast told JNS.
“Everybody else across the globe does not have this separate standard definition of refugees for Palestinians,” Mast added. “That needs to change, no matter what.”