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Researcher has sounded alarm for decades about hate in UNRWA camps

David Bedein, director of the Nahum Bedein Center for Near East Policy Research, told JNS that his warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

Palestinians fill water from pipes provided by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the Rafah refugee camp, Southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 25, 2023. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Palestinians fill water from pipes provided by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the Rafah refugee camp, Southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 25, 2023. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

Palestinian children in U.N. Relief and Works Agency camps, mere yards from the border with Israel, talk in a video about killing Jews and returning to their land. “The actions of Hamas match the ideology of UNRWA,” the narrator says.

“In the camps, we learned to defend our land and our country,” one boy says. “We learned how to fight, to attack.” Another says of Jews, “with God’s help, very soon, we’ll smash their heads, and we’ll return to our lands.”

The three-minute video “The Terror of Return” was filmed at the same location where Palestinian terrorists breached the southern border and invaded Israel on Oct. 7. But the Center for Near East Policy Research released the prescient footage in 2018, some five years before countries, including the United States, suspended funding to UNRWA  following allegations that the agency’s employees participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

The CNEPR, which has since been renamed the Nahum Bedein Center for Near East Policy Research, has tried for decades to raise the alarm about hatred and incitement festering in the 59 UNRWA refugee camps scattered throughout Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem. Those warnings, its director told JNS, have fallen on deaf Israeli governmental ears.

Refugee limbo

More than 20 years ago, the center issued a 37-page scholarly report about UNRWA. Despite its findings about UNRWA that could have directed policy, Israeli policymakers and leaders in other Western countries that fund UNRWA largely ignored those and subsequent materials that the Jerusalem-based center issued.

Multiple spokespeople for the Israeli government did not respond to a JNS query about whether Israeli policymakers were aware of the findings in the center’s report.

The 2003 report described how UNRWA is predicated upon the belief that Palestinians have a “right of return,” so the agency keeps them in “temporary” limbo until, it says, they can return to the homes and villages in Israel that their great-grandparents left more than 75 years ago. In fact, most of those homes no longer exist.

The report added that UNRWA perpetuates Palestinian dependency without seeking realistic solutions to the plight of refugees, including resettlement. In language that could describe present-day conditions in Gaza, the report warned: “Refugees, encouraged by UNRWA to see themselves as entitled to a return that will never happen, believe they are being cheated. As a result, they are filled with frustration and rage, and turn to radicalism.”

“They’re told that it was Israel who inflicted those indignities,” David Bedein, director of the present-day center, told JNS. “They didn’t know that it was the United Nations keeping them in refugee camps.”

All of the center’s research shows that Palestinians are “indoctrinated with the idea that Israel stuck them in those camps,” Bedein added.

Last month, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that 12 UNRWA employees were involved directly in the Oct. 7 attacks, and some 10% of the agency’s staff has ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (The center report noted in 2003 that “most” of the 23,000 UNRWA employees are refugees and “they too are often associated with terrorist groups such as Hamas” and that refugee camps are sites for bomb manufacture, recruitment and dispatching suicide bombers.)

When the violence of the First Intifada emanated from refugee camps, Israelis didn’t know what was happening, according to Bedein. He thinks the indignities that the refugees suffered motivated their violent outbursts—then and now. 

“Everything we said then is true now,” he said. “Everything we warned about—all the incitement, the keeping people in the refugee situation, it’s all a formula for war.”

David Bedein and Shimon Peres in 1992. Credit: Courtesy of David Bedein

‘It’s just children’

Children and adolescents learned in UNRWA summer camps—in full view of the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli intelligence cameras—to launch incendiary balloons and kites with explosive material that burned large swathes of Israeli agricultural land just across the fence.

Bedein told JNS that the Israeli army didn’t take the summer camps seriously and told him, when he sounded the alarm, “It’s just children.” (An IDF spokesman referred JNS to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which did not respond by press time.) 

Bedein claims that Israel overlooked the threat from Gaza due to the 400 Israeli corporations, including major food conglomerates and cement companies that had monopolies on supplying the Strip, that do business with the Palestinian Authority and with UNRWA. 

“In the Western mind, if you’re doing business with someone you can’t possibly be at war with them,” he told JNS.

Bedein told JNS that millions of people have visited the center’s website since Oct. 7 and that an eight-minute video, “Askar-UNRWA: Cradle of Killers,” which was released a few months before Oct. 7, has drawn 15,000 views. 

The Arab interviewers who film the center’s videos within UNRWA camps are glad for the work, Bedein said.

‘For their children and our grandchildren’

Bedein was first drawn to the work that would define his career as a high school student in Philadelphia at the Akiba Hebrew Academy. An Israeli sociologist who spoke at the school in 1968 told Bedein and his fellow students that Israel had a chance after the Six-Day War to reverse the indoctrination that Palestinians internalized. It could also convince them that Jews need not be the enemy.

Inspired, Bedein went on to study and then qualified as a social worker. He made aliyah.

Later, a neighbor who owned a construction business told Bedein that he fired his Israeli workers and replaced them with Palestinians from the UNRWA Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, to save money.

Bedein tagged along to a construction site, where he heard workers singing, “We’re building homes for the Jews; for their children; and our grandchildren.” It became clear to him that UNRWA was planting unrealistic expectations in the minds of the refugees.

Before turning his focus full-time to UNRWA, Bedein worked as a fixer for foreign news crews.

On a trip to Gush Katif with a BBC crew, Bedein met an Arab fixer who was taking the journalists to one of the UNRWA camps.

Bedein and the Arab agreed that nothing should be covered up and began to collaborate. Bedein also hired a Moroccan TV crew, and UNRWA cooperated fully with the Moroccan reporters, so the center was able to produce first-hand information that was published in Israel. The team has also provided footage from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

After more than two decades investigating UNRWA practices and its influence on the descendants of generations of refugees, Bedein is not surprised by IDF soldiers who report finding weapons in every building they enter in Gaza, nor by revelations about the involvement of UNRWA employees in Hamas.

He thinks it is unrealistic to call for UNRWA to be dismantled and have the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees take over its portfolio, since the U.N General Assembly will never allow one U.N. agency to replace another.

Donor countries should press the General Assembly to incorporate humanitarian principles from the UNHCR to encourage descendants of refugees to voluntarily resettle, he told JNS.

He is also fundraising presently to press criminal charges against UNRWA for arming children and training them to use weapons; for using textbooks in its schools that glorify those who murder Jews; and for letting Hamas control its teachers association and workers union.

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