The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has come under fire following revelations of the involvement of at least 12 employees in the Oct. 7 Hamas onslaught on the northwestern Negev.
“Sadly, this is not surprising,” said Anne Herzberg, legal adviser at the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor organization, who has consistently raised the alarm about the body. “We’ve known for years that UNRWA allows Hamas to use its facilities to store weapons. Rocket attacks are launched from UNRWA facilities and UNRWA’s textbooks feature vicious antisemitic content and incitement to violence,” Herzberg told JNS.
As such, she said, UNRWA’s transition from inciting terrorism to actively participating in kidnappings and massacres, while shocking, was to be expected.
Already soon after 2007, when Hamas seized control of the enclave from the Palestinian Authority, allegations of terrorists hijacking UNRWA ambulances and of weaponry being stored in UNRWA schools emerged along with imagery of UNRWA aid being sold in supermarkets.
In addition, Palestinian terrorist organizations including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have their own factions within the UNRWA employees’ labor union.
“Affiliated terrorist members operate within the framework of UNRWA,” Herzberg said. “This is justified by the fact that the U.N. does not consider Palestinian terror groups to be terrorist organizations. None of those groups appear on the U.N. terror list, not even Hamas,” she added.
The UNRWA perks for agency employees—including free education, health care, dental care, food distribution and welfare services—led many Hamas terrorists to register themselves as agency employees.
This may partly explain why the number of UNRWA employees has skyrocketed—currently, some 30,000 staff care for 5.9 million “reported refugees.” In comparison, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. refugee agency for the rest of the world, cares for 108 million refugees and displaced persons and suffices with 20,000 employees.
Weapons caches and terror headquarters
And terrorists have another motive for joining the agency—gaining access to its infrastructure.
UNRWA clinics and hospitals have become weapons caches and headquarters, above and below ground. Many terror tunnel entrances have been found near agency institutions. UNRWA medical equipment, including international humanitarian aid, is used by Hamas terrorists.
And Hamas officers, together with UNRWA employees, manage the distribution of medical resources—while giving priority to those affiliated with Hamas.
“Throughout the years, whenever UNRWA was confronted with its very own terror involvement, it either denied it or tried to cover it up,” said Herzberg.
“Any attempt at accountability has been rejected by UNRWA. In 2021, an UNRWA official had the courage to say Israel’s attacks were precise, not indiscriminate; he got fired,” she said.
“At the beginning of the [current round of with Israel] fighting, UNRWA put out a tweet on humanitarian aid being hijacked by terrorists. It immediately deleted the tweet,” Herzberg added, in reference to an Oct. 16 since-deleted post.
The tweet stated that UNRWA “received reports that yesterday a group of people with trucks purporting to be from the Ministry of Health of the de facto authorities in Gaza [i.e., Hamas] removed fuel and medical equipment from the agency’s compound in Gaza City.”
This UNRWA culture of impunity seems to be coming to an end with well over a dozen countries including the United States, Canada, France, Germany and Italy temporarily freezing funding. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres claims that an investigation is underway and that he terminated the employment of nine of the 12 UNRWA terror suspects.
“No country can ignore evidence of UNRWA staff participating in killing, raping and kidnapping people or even celebrating the attacks in a Telegram group and maintain any level of credibility,” Herzberg said.
Earlier this month, the UN Watch NGO exposed the fact that 3,000 of the agency’s teachers celebrated the massacre in a secret Telegram group while about 130 staff members were caught promoting terrorism and incitement online.
UNRWA said on Monday it will not be able to continue operations in Gaza and across the region beyond the end of February if funding is not resumed.
“It’s egregious that after what happened, Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini ask for more money. This money comes with conditions. They thought they were entitled to an unlimited source of funding but those days are over,” Herzberg said.
With 12 additional U.N. agencies and 80 international NGOs operating in Gaza, replacing UNRWA should not be too difficult.
Herzberg explained, however, that UNRWA is only the tip of the iceberg and that the entire humanitarian aid framework must be reassessed.
“While UNRWA is the biggest problem, the entire system is defective with mass aid diversion amongst all mechanisms providing aid, inadequate safeguards and inadequate protection against incitement that poisons the minds of children in Gaza. We can’t just stop at UNRWA, we must look at the holistic aid situation and come up with either more regulations or a new framework and alternative ways of providing aid to Gaza,” Herzberg said.
Donor countries, including the U.S., European Union countries and Canada, that proscribe Palestinian terrorist groups but give billions of dollars to U.N. agencies on the ground must ensure that the latter abide by their definition of terrorist groups, she said. “Donor governments must enforce their own terror regulations on UNRWA and whichever groups succeed it.”