The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (known as UNRWA) was established in 1949 to provide support and safety to refugees of Palestine initially banished from the 1948 war. The UNRWA’s work mainly involves Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
The agency provides basic social services, medical care, education, healthcare, and aid for displaced Palestinians. The UNRWA’s main role is to ensure relief for the millions of people impacted by the occupation. What sets the agency apart from take say, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), designed to help refugees around the world in general, is the UNRWA’s specialized work and role in focusing on the uniqueness of Palestine’s complex and ongoing politicide.
The UNRWA has its detractors and is seen as an obstacle to peace. Some argue that the agency is not neutral. They claim that the group is politicized and conflates the status of the refugees to maintain organizational strength at the expense of addressing problems faced by Palestinians. As with most robust institution’s, it also faces accusations of corruption, waste, and financial incompetence. Further, it receives criticism for lacking safety to protect its members.
U.N. and American officials referred to claims that some UNRWA employees may have been “involved in” the Oct. 7 attacks but did not elaborate on that involvement or say whether it included any of the worst atrocities committed that day.
The State Department referred to 12 employees being accused and fired — UNRWA did not offer a number — but it is unclear what kind of work they did or how senior they were. It also remains to be seen whether investigations will yield more such allegations.
For years, international relief workers and the Israeli military have reported weapons caches occasionally found in schools operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the organization that for decades has provided schooling, healthcare and other assistance to Palestinian refugees in Gaza.
They learned of underground tunnels beneath UNRWA facilities and the theft by Hamas of agency-provided fuel and aid. Some had run-ins with teachers over textbooks promoting the hatred of Jews and Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin wrote in The Jewish Press, America’s Largest Independent Jewish Weekly, that “UNRWA Exists To Help Fight The War To Eradicate Israel.” Tobin seems to think that any politician, activist, journalist or academic that attempts to provide context for UNRWA, in terms of politics, scope and scale, is driven by an effort to express and promote hatred or antisemitism.
If UNRWA was not involved in what basically functioned as a third intifada, then what is likely going on with the agency and what are the politics of the motivation in branding the group “terrorists?” President of the International Law Institute, Stuart Kerr, recently stated that:
UNRWA-USA is a US based charity – independent of UNRWA – that exists so that Americans can make tax-deductible donations that go to UNRWA. I don’t think the “freeze” was an INSTITUTIONAL “aid & comfort to terrorism” accusation, but that a small number (of the thousands!) of local UNRWA employees MAY have participated in the attack. We’ll see. Could be politics – the accusation being leveled on the day of an unfavorable holding by the World Court in The Hague (from Israel’s perspective). In a gutless move, the law firm that has long represented UNRWA-USA (on a pro bono basis) quit their representation when the USG announced their freeze on UNRWA funding. I’ve provided some suggestions to friends of UNRWA-USA on their search for new legal representation.
Last I checked, UNRWA has suspended several employees (some on the list aren’t with UNRWA) pending an investigation. The main point is that even very serious misconduct by less than ten people out of 30,000 UNRWA employees doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the organization. [This] reminds me of the [nonsense] about the White Helmets. Yes, some of their volunteers really were with Al Nusra, but that doesn’t delegitimize the organization.
I think it is another red herring, like the sex crimes accusation against Hamas. As far as I can tell, it is based on “confessions” gotten from Hamas prisoners under torture. The Western response, taken in an embarrassing choreographed fashion, is as outrageous! There is no definitive proof, only 12 out of thousands of UNRWA employees have been accused, yet Biden and most of the European leaders are ready to become complicit in mass starvation. The only truth here is that they are the real criminals. Biden is the most pathetic president this country has had since Andrew Jackson attempted genocide against the Cherokee.
There was some basis for the claim of involvement on the part of a few of its thousands of staff employees. It is not surprising that Gazans subjected to decades of oppressive Israeli state terror would be drawn to support resistance initiatives, especially at this time of Zionist extremist leadership in Tel Aviv well before Oct. 7. The fact of dismissing a dozen or more UNRWA employees tends to substantiate the allegation.
Considering the timing of the Israeli complaint, the day after the ICJ ruling, and the heroic relief and sheltering role costing UNRWA more than a hundred staff deaths, the defunding response, especially given the humanitarian consequences of denying relief to surviving Gazans, is a further enablement of genocide.
Falk’s account of Israel and their manufacturing of allegations against UNRWA and their effectiveness as a form of punishment is not unfounded. Democracy Now! has just reported that Israel has targeted the Belgian office agency that continued to fund UNRWA in defiance of the Holy State.
In the face of increasing threats to defund the agency and discredit its efforts in providing humanitarian aid, donors have rallied to restore confidence in the group. While it is unclear if the allegations are true, the motivations to tie UNRWA to Hamas without much evidence at all are quite clear. First, it undermines an agency of 30,000 strong that poses the threat of a good example — a large entity with the capability of advancing constructive forms of aid as politics and resistance. Second, the allegations, if true, can disqualify the group, thus disqualifying crucial aid while presenting the U.S. and Israel as the model democracies, trying to bring about peace in the face of 9 or so malcontents in a 30,000-member organization.
As awful as Hamas is, what is further unclear, however, is the entire scope of the Hamas organization in the first place. Scholar Tithi Bhattacharya recently pointed out Professor Rashid Khalidi’s interview in From the River to the Sea: Essays for a Free Palestine, edited by Sai Englert, Michal Schatz, and Rosie Warren. Khalidi stated that:
Hamas is a political movement with a military wing. It has cultural, religious, and ideological elements to it, some of which are impossible to extirpate. You can say that there’s a military wing and Israel might try to destroy that military wing entirely, but you can’t destroy or eliminate Hamas per se.
It was a movement that won an election in 2006. We’re talking about a plurality rather than a majority, but a lot of people voted for it. It has a huge network of social services, political branches, and so forth.
It also represents an idea of resistance and an idea of some kind of Islamic society. You can’t extirpate that without killing hundreds of thousands of people. Could Israel defeat the military wing of Hamas? Possibly. Could they completely eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip? No.
Along these same lines as Khalidi, a sharp NYC political insider Michael Kinnucan commented that “the reporting on [the] UNRWA story is just astonishing,” referring to the January 28th New York Times headline. He argues that it was not news at all, and that Israel’s discovery of Gaza’s largest political party (Hamas) working for one of its largest employers, is analogous to discovering that Likud members work in the Israeli school system. Kinnucan stated, “no one in any government in the world is surprised by this.” Aside from the complexity and moving parts of the war, one thing is certain as more facts come out relevant to the matter; the world needs to stand by UNRWA namely because, as foreign minister of Norway, Espen Barth Eide points out:
UNRWA is a lot more than a humanitarian organization. It represents a commitment by the international community to Palestinian refugees. Its operations are also critical for the presence of other humanitarian organizations in Gaza.
As French Foreign Minister Catherine Colanna and an independent panel investigates and observes the actions of UNRWA, beyond this murky issue remains concerns over the fate of the Palestinians.
Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.