Let’s not get caught up in the details of the controversy that made headlines this past weekend about the fact that 12 employees of UNRWA—the U.N. refugee agency dedicated to assisting the Palestinians—took part in the Hamas pogroms in southern Israel on Oct. 7. The New York Times broke the story, and many of the governments that are the principal funders of UNRWA, including the United States, which is the largest donor giving $422 million to it in 2023, have since expressed various levels of concern or outrage.
No one who knows anything about UNRWA can pretend to be surprised by what happened. The notion put forward by some of its apologists that the people who took part in the terror attacks are just a tiny minority of its 13,000 employees is not to be taken seriously. As The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported, it is estimated that approximately 10% of UNRWA employees are either active members or have ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
For years, it has been well known that UNRWA facilities, including schools and other places that are supposed to be devoted to charitable purposes, have been used by Hamas to store weapons or otherwise assist terrorists. Its education programs are as bad as those run by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority when it comes to indoctrinating young Palestinians in hatred for Israel and the Jews. UNRWA’s creation in 1949, coupled with its actions and the infrastructure it has built up since then, is dedicated to perpetuating the conflict with Israel. Forget philanthropy or—as every other refugee agency in the world focuses on—resettling those displaced by war in some safe place where they can make a new start in life.
That said, the notion that anything is shocking about the fact that a few of the UNRWA staff were caught taking part in the Oct. 7 attacks, including direct participation in kidnapping and mass murder, is a joke.
Sadly, so is most of the discussion about holding UNRWA accountable.
An unaccountable U.N. agency
Much to the dismay of Israel-haters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Biden administration announced that it was suspending funding of UNRWA. But when the details are drilled down, it turns out that the United States is continuing to pay the money it already pledged but will only put a pause on sending cash for new projects. The same is true for Germany and Canada, as well as some other donor nations. The government of the Netherlands has suspended all funding but other countries, like Ireland, Spain and Turkey, are refusing to take any actions to hold UNRWA accountable.
If the past is any indication of the future, even those who have spoken out about this, like the United States, will eventually, even if quietly, resume full funding of UNRWA. As part of his policies that attempted to hold Palestinians and their enablers accountable for their support for terrorism and rejection of peace, former President Donald Trump cut all ties with and funding for UNRWA in 2018. Unfortunately, among the first actions when Joe Biden took office in 2021, he reversed that move and restored funding. Biden and his foreign-policy team are steadfast supporters of the United Nations and everything it does, regardless of the fact that it has long been a cesspool of antisemitism.
Even those administration officials who have been the most outspoken in reaffirming Israel’s right to self-defense—like John Kirby, the communications director for the National Security Council, who has also denounced Hamas and supported the goal of its elimination—also defended UNRWA. According to Kirby, UNRWA does “amazing work” saving lives. Incredibly, he even gave it credit for wanting to investigate the problem.
The reason for this is that UNRWA has made itself indispensable to the business of caring for Palestinians in Gaza. It is, as it has been for the last 75 years, the primary conduit of assistance to a population that has been made dependent on the international community for all services, including employment. As such, it can and does present itself to the world as the embodiment of philanthropy, providing sustenance to an enormous number of people in need.
That is why any effort to investigate its activities and penalize it for its close ties to terrorists is always derailed by invoking its good works and the notion that if it were shut down, millions would starve.
So, even when UNRWA is caught red-handed storing rockets to be fired at Israel or even having its staff actively taking part in the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, the odds that its parent organization or the various nations that have spent billions of their citizens’ taxpayer dollars on funding it will do anything other than slap it on the wrist are negligible.
As with the rest of his policies that ignored the advice of the foreign-policy establishment and the “experts,” Trump had it right on UNRWA. The only theoretical hope for there to be peace between Israel and the Palestinians must start with the abolition of institutions that not only provide assistance and employment to terrorists but have as their purpose the perpetuation of a futile quest to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet. UNRWA must not merely be defunded. It must be abolished.
A world full of refugees
The very fact of its existence is a function of the way the international community has acted to prevent a resolution of the conflict.
When UNRWA was created by the United Nations in 1949, the plight of refugees was among the world’s most pressing problems. Up to 60 million people were displaced in Europe during and immediately after the Second World War.
That included those Jews who had survived the Holocaust seeking to go to Israel or the West, as well as millions of others who had been uprooted for one reason or another. Among them were ethnic Germans who were thrown out of their homes throughout Eastern Europe, including traditionally German regions like East Prussia. As Europe adjusted to new borders largely imposed by the demands of the Soviet Union, many people were forcibly evicted and told to move to places where their ethnicity would be welcomed. Any who resisted were not supported by the international community. They were violently repressed, imprisoned and forgotten.
Nor was Europe the only region where there was a refugee crisis. When Britain abandoned its rule of India, the subcontinent was partitioned into two separate nations—largely, Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The drawing of those lines on the map created 14 million people who found themselves on the wrong side of the new borders and became refugees. More than 1 million people died in the ethnic and religious violence there as massive populations scrambled to find new homes.
Arab and Jewish refugees
Coming around the same time as the catastrophe caused by the partition of India was the refugee problem caused by Britain’s leaving another of its former possessions: the Mandate for Palestine. The United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states: one for the Jews and one for the Arabs with Jerusalem being an international enclave. While the Jews accepted the partition scheme, the Arabs did not. The leaders of the Palestinian Arabs—like the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini—declared war on the Jews. Neighboring Arab nations supported them and invaded the newborn State of Israel on its first day of existence in May 1948.
The Arab war to destroy Israel not only failed; the fighting led hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the former Mandate to flee. A small minority were forced out by Israelis during bitter fighting in some areas. But most of them left out of fear of what would happen to them if they fell under the rule of Jews (and with the expectation that they would take over all the land once the Jews were “thrown into the sea”). That was mostly the product of projection since in many instances Jews captured by their foes were massacred. But it was also the result of propaganda from the Arab side in the fighting in which they sought to demonize their enemies and strengthen the will of the Palestinian Arabs to fight.
During the same period as approximately 700,000 Arabs became refugees, some 800,000 Jews either fled or were forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Muslim world where they had lived for centuries. The very different disposition of those two populations says all anyone needs to know about the next 75 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Jewish refugees were resettled in a massive philanthropic project funded by Jews around the world. Most of those refugees went to Israel, where they faced hardships in what was then a very poor and embattled country. Today, their descendants make up about half the Jewish population and have contributed enormously to its defense and flourishing as a modern state. Others found new homes in the United States and other parts of the world.
Unlike every other refugee population, the Palestinian Arabs were not resettled. They were kept in camps throughout the Middle East with the largest concentration in Gaza, which was controlled by Egypt from 1949 to 1967. They were prevented from finding new homes in Arab and Muslim countries, where they spoke the language and shared a common culture. Nor were they enabled to go elsewhere to make new lives.
Instead, they were kept in place to wait for the day when they could “go home” to their former villages in what was now Israel. Their leaders and the rest of the Arab world opposed their resettlement, doing all they could to prevent it.
And the agency that enabled this policy to continue for generations was none other than UNRWA.
It’s important to understand that at the time when all these refugee problems arose, the United Nations created two refugee agencies. One, UNRWA, deals only with the Palestinians. The other, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (or UNHCR) has the responsibility for all of the other refugees in the world.
The UNHCR has its flaws, but its job is to help the refugees by giving them not just immediate aid in surviving being displaced by wars and other disasters but also assistance in resettling in places where it will be safe for them. Their goal is to ensure that their problems are resolved and that their children will make new lives rather than continue to live in camps.
By contrast, the UNRWA exists solely to ensure that Palestinian refugees are never resettled. That’s why almost all of the people who are called Palestinian refugees are the descendants of the people who fled the war the Arab world started in 1948. Several generations have been born in the camps but, contrary to the way other populations are treated, all are given the same status as those who were the original 1948 refugees.
Of all the tens of millions of refugees of the 1940s, the only ones whose descendants have not been resettled are the Palestinians. A humane and rational policy would have led to their being absorbed into other populations. But that’s not UNRWA’s job. It operates the ultimate welfare state in which generations are kept dependent on charity. Worse than that, its programs and policies all encourage the Palestinians to go on believing that someday Israel will cease to exist, and then they can return to where their grandparents and great-grandparents lived three-quarters of a century ago. Though it pretends to be a humanitarian force, it encourages its charges to look forward to the day when Hamas’s genocidal objective—the mass murder of Israel’s 7 million Jews—will be achieved.
Therefore, it’s little surprise that UNRWA is riddled with supporters of Hamas and that among its staff are people who take part in terrorist atrocities. And that much of the aid it receives from the world goes to help Hamas continue to function. UNRWA allows the very people its donors think they are helping to be used as human shields in a cynical hopeless war.
So, let’s not waste much time arguing about the details of UNRWA’s complicity in Oct. 7 or other acts of terror. The only discussion that needs to be held is one about its abolition and replacement by a genuine refugee agency. The world needs one that can give Palestinians new homes rather than keep them in misery awaiting another Holocaust for the Jews that they’ve been led to believe will magically solve their problems.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.