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Israeli lawmakers ponder UNRWA overhaul

The agency serves as a cover for Hamas, former MK Einat Wilf told the legislators.

Lawmakers, academics and former Defense and Foreign ministry officials attend a meeting in Jerusalem of the Knesset Caucus on UNRWA and for Change of Policy in UNRWA, Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office.
Lawmakers, academics and former Defense and Foreign ministry officials attend a meeting in Jerusalem of the Knesset Caucus on UNRWA and for Change of Policy in UNRWA, Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office.

The Knesset on Tuesday held a special discussion on the future of Israel’s relations with UNRWA, amid mounting national and international concern over the agency’s connection with Palestinian terrorism.

The parliamentary meeting comes amid a groundswell of reports on the close ties to terrorists of employees of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, including an eyewitness account of an UNRWA schoolteacher holding an Israeli hostage in the basement of his Gaza home and the discovery of missiles and other weapons hidden among UNRWA relief supplies.

“If we want to change the reality on the ground, it starts with UNRWA,” said MK Sharren Haskel (National Unity), who chaired the meeting of the Knesset Caucus on UNRWA and for Change of Policy in UNRWA. “There is an understanding that what was before cannot continue.”

The two-hour meeting, held under the rubric of “The Day After: UNRWA,” included academics, ambassadors, lawmakers, and officials from the Foreign and Defense ministries. They discussed options from pressing for reform, the establishment of an international supervisory board to monitor aid donations, and terminating all cooperation with the agency.

(Last week, the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held a closed-door discussion on the topic as well.)

“UNRWA is a weaponized organization of the Iranian regime,” said Dan Diker, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “It has become a major machinery of terror for the Iranian regime.”

“Any alternative would be better than UNRWA,” said Dr. Einat Wilf, an author and former member of Knesset.

She noted that for decades the agency, which employs Palestinians for 99% of its staff, was supported by successive Israeli governments and the Israeli security establishment under the false assumption that it would serve as a moderating force, while instead, it has served as a cover for Hamas.

“Israel needs to do a 180 and declare that it will no longer cooperate with UNRWA,” Wilf said. “No country that is a friend of Israel should provide them any money.”

“This is an organization that is beyond repair,” said Noga Arbell, a senior researcher at the Kohelet Policy Forum. “It must be dismantled and thrown in the dustbin of history, now.”

Former diplomats and security officials said that Israel needed to formulate its policy going forward on UNRWA, and then enlist allies around the world to further its goal.

Former MK Einat Wilf (left) and MK Sharren Haskel (center) attend a meeting in Jerusalem of the Knesset Caucus on UNRWA and for Change of Policy in UNRWA, Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Knesset Spokesperson’s Office.

Perpetuating the conflict

Israel has long said that UNRWA was created to perpetuate the conflict by granting Palestinians refugee status seven and a half decades after the establishment of the State of Israel although no other persons in the world would qualify under the same circumstances.

Established by the U.N. in 1949 to carry out relief and work programs for the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who fled their homes during the 1948-49 War of Independence, UNRWA defines refugees not only as refugees themselves but also their descendants in perpetuity, including those who have citizenship in other countries. As a result, the number of Palestinian “refugees” registered with the organization has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to nearly six million today.

The main U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for the rest of the refugees in the world, has no such policy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long said UNRWA should be abolished and its responsibilities taken over by UNHCR.

Foreign funding

Amid decades of hate and terror indoctrination, the Trump administration cut off U.S. funding to UNRWA in 2018, a move President Joe Biden reversed shortly after taking office in 2021.

This summer, the U.S. State Department allocated more than $200 million for UNRWA despite its schools’ curriculum glorifying violence and terrorism as well as an agreement conditioning funding on the prevention of teaching hate and antisemitism.

The new funds brought the total United States assistance to UNRWA during the Biden administration to more than $600 million, cementing the United States’ status as UNRWA’s largest donor.

A moment for change

“As we are sitting here, IDF soldiers are risking their lives uncovering terror tunnels in Gaza,” Haskel said. “Even if they destroy all the tunnels and the terror infrastructure, if we do not stop the incitement of the future generation, October 7 will recur sooner or later. If we do not seize the moment to enact significant changes with UNRWA the status quo will continue.”

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