The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks following revelations that approximately 10% of its 12,000 Gaza workforce are linked to Hamas, with at least 12 participating directly in the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre.
According to Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, an organization that monitors educational curricula in the Middle East, UNRWA is actually radicalizing Gaza. The agency cannot be entrusted with the education of Gaza residents “for one day longer,” he told JNS.
“UNRWA failed in its duty of care,” and is “complicit in the radicalization of all its students in its schools,” he said. “It can no longer have a hand in education,” he insisted.
According to IMPACT-se, there are 183 UNRWA-run schools across the Gaza Strip, according to UNRWA’s data educating over 286,000 students.
In addition to its involvement in radicalizing Gaza’s population, UNRWA has perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem, granting them the unique right to inherit their refugee status—a right no other refugee group in the world is entitled to. This policy has allowed the number of refugees, initially around 700,000 after 1948, to surge to nearly six million today.
Recognizing UNRWA’s damage to the Palestinian cause and to the future of the Middle East, former U.S. President Donald Trump ended U.S. funding to the agency in 2018. However, the Biden administration restored the funding, and in July 2022 announced it had given more money to UNRWA than any other organization in the world. The United States usually gives UNRWA between $300-$400 million annually.
Following the revelation of direct participation of UNRWA staff in the Oct. 7 massacre, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “horrified” and vowed to hold to account “any U.N. employee involved in acts of terror.”
However, he condemned calls to dismantle UNRWA, saying that while the “abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences,” the tens of thousands of other UNRWA employees “should not be penalized.”
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said he was “shocked such decisions are taken based on alleged behavior of a few individuals.” Many other experts decried what they perceive as “collective punishment” of UNRWA based on the actions of a few bad apples.
However, testifying before Congress last week, Sheff said, “These extremist views go way beyond a handful of individuals. They are endemic to the institution.”
Both Sheff and U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer made clear in their testimonies that the “few bad apples” argument doesn’t hold up in light of the overwhelming evidence against UNRWA.
“These were not a few bad apples; rather, the institutional barrel is rotten,” Sheff said in his testimony.
Sheff noted that elsewhere in the Middle East, for example in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Israel, peace is promoted in school curriculums and textbooks.
“We look at the region, and extremist UNRWA schools stand increasingly alone,” he said.
“The majority of terrorists who breached the border and murdered, raped and abducted [Israeli civilians] on Oct. 7 were graduates of these UNRWA schools,” he told JNS. “They were taught jihad and martyrdom and it is not a particularly difficult conclusion to reach that they were educated to commit these terrible acts of violence in these schools supported by the international community,” he said.
“If we want to prevent the next massacre, if we want to dream of peace, then UNRWA can play no further part in Palestinian education,” he said, adding, “There are alternatives.”
According to Sheff, both the United States and Europe realize UNRWA’s educational program “is not fit for purpose.”
Like Sheff, Neuer testified before Congress that the U.N. agency “is a failure” and “rotten to the core.” Furthermore, he said, this was not new information.
Guterres and others “could not possibly have been shocked that UNRWA employees are implicated in terrorism, because for the past nine years…we’ve been uncovering, publishing and submitting to the United Nations, to UNRWA, evidence of widespread and systematic incitement to jihadi terrorism, the praise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, calls to slaughter Jews on the part of UNRWA teachers, school principles and other employees.”
Neuer asked Congress to “take the lead in dissolving this agency.”
The calls to take action against UNRWA have not gone unheeded. A recent $118 billion bipartisan border security bill that would also provide aid to Ukraine and Israel included a provision barring its funds from going to UNRWA.
Blaise Misztal, vice president of policy at JINSA, agreed that UNRWA is “rotten to the core,” and that the problem is not a matter of “a few bad apples.”
He told JNS that “the world’s eyes have been opened to the true face of UNRWA with these allegations and particularly with the hearing that was held on the Hill making the point.”
He noted that UNRWA “has been discredited, certainly in the eyes of America and many western powers.”
Misztal warned though that the challenge here is now to create an alternative to UNRWA, working with western powers, and in particular regional powers including Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states.
“It’s important for Israel to work with the countries that do recognize that funding UNRWA is a bad idea to come up with their own solution to make sure the United Nations is on board and doesn’t try to perpetuate the problem, and to make sure there is a viable alternative,” he said.
Misztal agreed that UNRWA must be replaced.
“All of this is a result of the world burying its head in the sand for 17 years, saying, ‘this is fine’ as we basically let terrorists run Gaza—including UNRWA,” he lamented.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that much of the effort to dismantle UNRWA “is going to depend upon the extent to which Israel is able to share the intelligence that it has… and ultimately can convince the United States to halt the funding.”
He told JNS that if Israel is “willing and able to do this with some of UNRWA’s other major backers, the road ahead is clear and could actually begin to see a full drawdown of the organization, and maybe even its dismantlement.”
He added that while IMPACT-se and others have exposed UNRWA’s activities for many years now, “What Israel has shared is far more damning. It is very different in terms of showing how UNRWA employees were complicit in terror, not only on Oct. 7 but also beyond.”
But if Israel declines to share that information, or the donor countries simply don’t care what the Israelis have, then “the circus continues,” he said.
Schanzer noted that the United States has a significant amount of influence over the other countries that are weighing their moves with regard to UNRWA.
“We are at a fork in the road,” said Schanzer. “Now, the ball is in America’s court.”
Misztal told JNS, “The days of UNRWA should be over, in much the same way that the days of Hamas ruling Gaza should be over. We can’t go back to the status quo.”