Reading the material on the website for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), one gets a picture of “a relief and development agency, providing education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid.” This benevolent view of UNRWA is the one that most people embrace.

But this vision, unfortunately, is not the reality, since this supposed humanitarian enterprise contains substantial links to terrorism that have been incontrovertibly documented. The record is clear: UNRWA policies foment terrorism, UNRWA practices allow it to flourish, and American money donated to UNRWA ends up in terrorists’ hands.

In February of 2002, the Israelis arrested Ala’a Muhammad Ali Hassan, a member of Tanzim (Fatah’s armed faction) in Nablus. Hassan admitted he had carried out a sniper shooting from the UNRWA-run school run in the al-Ayn refugee camp near Nablus. More significantly, he reported that bombs intended for terrorist attacks were being manufactured inside the school’s facilities.

Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, Israel Defense Forces entered UNRWA camps in response to horrific terrorist attacks and discovered there small-arms factories, explosive laboratories, and suicide bombing cells.

A report made by the Fatah unit in Jenin to Marwan Barghouti, then head of the Tanzim, was picked up by the IDF during this operation. It said the Jenin refugee camp is “characterized by an exceptional presence of fighters,” and is known as the “suiciders’ capital.”

But even beyond this, there is substantial evidence of UNRWA employees’ direct connection with terrorism.

Nidal abd a-Fattah Abdallah Nazzal, an UNRWA-employed ambulance driver and a Hamas “activist” in Kalkilya, was arrested in August, 2002. He confessed to transporting weapons and explosives to terrorists in an UNRWA ambulance. Another employee, Nahd Rashid Ahmad Atallah, a senior UNRWA official in the Gaza Strip was also arrested the same month. He had used his UNRWA car to drive armed men to carry out attacks, as well as to transport a 12-kilogram explosive charge.

And as of September 11, 2003, Israel was detaining at least 16 other UNRWA staff members for various security-related matters, while the Isralei military court has already convicted at least three UNRWA employees for terrorist-associated activities such as throwing firebombs at a public bus.

Precisely what is going on? Actually, several things at once.

A predilection for terrorism within the Palestinian Arab refugee population is not surprising, coming from a culture that condones a considerable degree of violence to begin with. As well, the Palestinians have been living in UNRWA camps for more than fifty years without final determination of their status or an opportunity to get on with their lives. Frustrated to the point of rage, they have been told that resolution of their problems will come only with their “return” to Israel, drawing them to the ideology of groups that openly condone Israel’s destruction.

What also exacerbates the situation here is that UNRWA hires from within its client population. Out of 23,000 employees, all but a handful of “international” high-level administrative employees are Palestinian Arab refugees. It is from this population that UNRWA draws managers; teachers; social workers; custodial workers; clerks; and medical personnel.

There is a general rule of thumb, however, that it is not appropriate for an agency to do large scale hiring of staff among the population it serves. Certainly no other UN agency does this; the United Nations International Children’s Fund and United Nations High Commission for Refugees, by design, maintain a certain distance from their client base.

The argument is made by UNRWA that refugees best understand the situation of other refugees and can thus best provide them with services. But a conflict of interest is almost guaranteed in a situation as professionally incestuous as this. Staff, rather than maintaining a professional objectivity, shares the passions and perceptions of the other refugees, and sometimes acts on them inappropriately

However, it even goes beyond this. Yoni Fighel, a former military governor in the territories, has stated unequivocally that UNRWA workers are permitted to openly affiliate with terrorist-advocating radical groups:

As long as UNRWA employees are members of Fatah, Hamas, or PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], they are going to pursue the interests of their party within the framework of their job.Who’s going to check up on them to see that they don’t? UNRWA? They are UNRWA.

So pervasive is this situation in the camps that Hamas has gained control of the UNRWA workers’ union. In the Gaza Strip, the 2003 elections for union representatives saw Hamas-affiliated candidates gain substantial majorities in all union sectors, securing control of all seats in the teachers’ sector. Moreover, Hamas candidates fully constitute the union’s executive committee.

In Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan (all places where UNRWA operates), UNRWA does make an effort to secure information from the respective governments on the terrorist connections or history of prospective employees. However, for political reasons, UNRWA does no vetting of prospective employees in the West Bank and Gaza. While it is the Israelis who have, and if requested, would share pertinent information, UNRWA refuses to recognize Israel as having any jurisdiction in the territories. Imagine, if you can, the Palestinian Authority – which UNRWA does recognize as having jurisdiction – giving up information on terrorists. This extraordinarily perverse situation would be funny if it were not so serious.

And when it comes to the issue handling evidence of terrorism within its jurisdiction, the UNRWA stonewalls and dissembles.

Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, is clearly in deep denial on the question of UNRWA-terrorist connections. In his (mandated) annual report to the UN General Assembly for July 1, 2001 – June 30, 2002, the period that included Operation Defensive Shield, Hansen managed to avoid any mention of what was uncovered in Jenin. What makes this all the more incredible is that he alluded to damage done by Israeli soldiers to UNRWA facilities in Jenin, but did not place this damage in its context by explaining that it was collateral to Israeli pursuit of terrorists. So blatant are the report’s omissions that it is possible for someone not in possession of the facts to conclude that the Israeli soldiers simply conducted themselves with arbitrary malice.

This spring, at a conference at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Hansen was equally astonishing. When asked about terrorism in UNRWA camps, he drew quotation marks in the air as he said the word “terrorism,” thereby delivering his message. It is all “made up,” he explained, “to delegitimize” the UNRWA’s work. Then he added, “There hasn’t been a single case documented.”

When asked what this meant, he replied there has not been a single case of actions by an UNRWA employee “that would lead to conviction in a military court.” A stunning answer, as it implies that UNRWA is “clean” with regard to terrorism as long as a military court can convict none of its employees of terrorist activities. It treats as irrelevant evidence of weapons factories and storage areas, terrorist training locales and places for terrorists to hide in UNRWA facilities.

But even more pertinent is the fact that UNRWA employees have been convicted for terrorist activities in Israeli military courts. Hansen himself seemed to acknowledge this. Hesitating after making this statement, he then equivocated: “Well, there was one case.” However, the data above makes clear that there have been not one but several cases, and they are a matter of public record.

Nor does this represent the end of Hansen’s official denials. The money provided via USAID comes with legal constraints. Section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, as amended, states that “all possible measures” must be taken to ensure that no US contributions are used to help refugees who have engaged in acts of terrorism, or have undergone guerilla-type or Palestinian Liberation Army military training

In 2003, the US General Accounting Office did an on-site assessment of the UNRWA and issued a report, in which Hansen attested that:

UNRWA has no evidence that would justify denying beneficiaries relief or humanitarian aid owning to terrorism.

How could the head of the UNRWA put out such a statement?

The answer lies with the word “evidence.” We are looking at a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. UNRWA does not note terrorist convictions on refugee registration cards, does not receive (or seek out) information on terrorist related convictions of beneficiaries, and does not ask beneficiaries if they have engaged in terrorism.

The identification of UNRWA staff with Palestinian radicalism suggests the possibility that UNRWA simply has adopted a policy of turning a blind eye. UNRWA, however, presents another reason for looking the other way, which is also credible: There is a fear that UNRWA staff would be in danger if questions were asked or benefits cut, especially since staff is vulnerably housed in or near the camps and their families are known to terrorists.

The GAO report refers to widespread consensus regarding this vulnerability. It also indicates that the US has refrained from defining the phrase “all possible measures”, which perhaps giving the UNRWA some leeway in recognition of this problem.

UNRWA, then, by its own admission, is allowing itself to be held up by terrorists in order to continue to function. At a bare minimum (best case scenario), this means UNRWA is out of control. Its Deputy Commissioner-General, Karen AbuZayd, is on record as saying “[everything] is upside down. The refugees are the armed elements.”

As matters stand, American taxpayers have solid reason for concern, for the US, via USAID, is UNRWA’s single largest donor. In addition to paying approximately one-third of UNRWA’s regular budget, America donates millions to the several emergency campaigns UNRWA runs each year, all of which total sums in excess of $100 million annually.

UNRWA may believe that paying extortion money to terrorist refugees is an acceptable price for sustaining its operations. Whether American citizens, whose tax money is involved, would agree is another issue.

This ran in on August 13, 2004