With the Trump Administration reportedly planning various steps against UNRWA—the U.N. aid agency devoted solely to Palestinian refugees—Israeli defense officials have leaped to UNRWA’s defense. A rapid cutback of U.S. funding would create a vacuum in basic services, especially in Gaza, that Hamas might fill, and could even spark violence, they warned.
But their argument is wrong on at least three counts. First, U.S. cutbacks won’t actually cause a financial crisis. Second, forcing Hamas to provide basic services in UNRWA’s stead would be a plus, not a minus. Third, their policy would sacrifice long-term strategic interests for minuscule tactical gains.
As I’ve written before, I’d support plunging UNRWA into financial crisis, since that might force it to reform. But Washington can’t cut its donations much more than it already has—from $360 million last year to just $60 million this year. And judging by the results, it hasn’t caused a crisis at all.
Admittedly, you wouldn’t guess this from listening to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl or from reading the numerous media reports that uncritically parrot his claims. Kraehenbuehl has repeatedly said the organization faces “its worst crisis ever,” a genuinely “existential” danger. He even threatened not to open UNRWA schools this year, though he later backtracked.
But in real life, the agency has laid off 113 workers in Gaza, 154 in the West Bank and around 100 in Jordan—about 370 in total. If that sounds like a lot, then you haven’t read UNRWA’s website, which proudly declares the agency “one of the largest United Nations programs, with over 30,000 personnel.” In short, these “extensive” cutbacks, as one media report termed them, total a little more than 1 percent of UNRWA’s enormous staff. That’s not something most organizations would label a crisis.
Moreover, UNRWA wouldn’t have any crisis at all if it weren’t outrageously overstaffed. It has almost three times as many employees as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, though the latter agency, which cares for all non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide, serves 12 times as many people. In other words, UNRWA has one employee for every 167 “refugees,” while UNHCR has one for every 5,200.
Nor would UNRWA have any problem if it didn’t endlessly expand its refugee rolls by including every refugee’s descendent for all eternity, even though most aren’t refugees at all, since they’re either citizens of other countries or residents of the West Bank and Gaza, which the United Nations itself deems the “State of Palestine.” The agency doesn’t even bother delisting many who are dead. In short, it has many ways to cut costs without causing a crisis.
Defense officials’ second fallacy is that Hamas providing services in UNRWA’s stead would somehow be bad. In reality, if Hamas had to provide services to the people it governs, it would have less money to spend on its endless military build-up, which would improve Israel’s security.
That’s exactly what happened last year, when the Palestinian Authority, which had previously financed all civilian services in Hamas-run Gaza not provided by UNRWA, stopped doing so. For the first time, Hamas had to pay for civilian needs like fuel for Gaza’s only power plant out of its own pocket. Consequently, according to Israeli intelligence, it slashed its annual military budget from $200 million in 2014 (the year of the last Hamas-Israel war) to $50 million last year. Even $70 million in military aid from Iran, then still flush with cash from the 2015 nuclear deal, couldn’t make up that shortfall.
UNRWA cutbacks would force Hamas to spend even more on civilian needs in order to preserve its rule in Gaza. And that would further reduce its ability to invest in rockets and cross-border tunnels.
Granted, Hamas-run schools and summer camps would indoctrinate children in anti-Israel propaganda. But so do UNRWA-run schools and summer camps. UNRWA textbooks teach that Jews have no right even to pre-1967 Israel, that all Jewish holy sites are actually Muslim, that Molotov cocktail attacks on Jewish civilians are a “barbecue party.” UNRWA summer camps teach that even pre-1967 Israel belongs to the Palestinians, and they should seek to “liberate” it through force of arms. Thus on this score, Israel would be no worse off than it is now.
The final fallacy is defense officials’ desire to postpone conflict at any cost. Obviously, preventing war is usually desirable. But war with Hamas isn’t an existential threat, and in any case, virtually all Israeli analysts consider it inevitable at some point.
The refugee crisis, in contrast, remains a potentially existential threat. Should the Palestinians ever succeed in mobilizing international support behind their demand that all 5 million “refugees” relocate to Israel, this would eradicate the Jewish state.
Hence Israel has a major interest in defusing this crisis by taking most of these “refugees” off the rolls—where, as noted, they don’t belong in any case—and permanently shuttering UNRWA, whose main mission in life is to endlessly expand those rolls. Since no previous U.S. administration has ever been willing to address this issue, Israel would be foolish not to take advantage of the Trump administration’s apparent desire to do so, even at the price of war with Hamas.
But that’s especially true given that defense officials think war will happen anyway. They merely seek to postpone it so that Israel can finish building its anti-tunnel barrier. And for a few months (or even years) of delay and the minor tactical advantage of an anti-tunnel barrier, they’re willing to sacrifice an existential Israeli interest.
It’s foolish beyond belief. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising. As Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz argue in a new book, the defense establishment has been UNRWA’s top lobbyist for decades.
All this merely proves a point I’ve made before: Military men are good at solving militarily problems, but they’re no better than anyone else, and often worse, at understanding political problems. Yet their facade of expertise often cows politicians into deferring to them.
Let’s hope Israel’s current government resists this temptation and takes full advantage of the Trump administration’s plan. It’s an opportunity that may not recur for a very long time.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.