As Operation Protective Edge enters its third week, we have now seen four incidents in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas that have focused attention on UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), the internationally funded welfare organization for Palestinian “refugees.”
The most recent saw three IDF soldiers killed in an explosion at a booby-trapped UNRWA clinic that was located at the opening of a terror tunnel.
Earlier in the week, UNRWA discovered rockets hidden in three of its schools in Gaza. Hamas or some other faction had been using the schools while they were closed for the summer; the one available photo shows rockets piled in the back of a classroom, covered with a blanket.
UNRWA properly condemned the act, as did UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who expressed “outrage and regret” at the discovery. But lacking its own munitions disposal capability, UNRWA the apparently returned the rockets to local authorities, presumably Hamas. It later expressed alarm that the other batch had mysteriously gone missing. After being ridiculed for this, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness has now stated that his organization will rely on UN mine disposal experts for future assistance.
One can almost sympathize with UNRWA. Its schools have long been a primary mechanism for teaching the Palestinian narrative of displacement, resentment, and resistance against Israel. But it is doubtful that its international employees like Gunness took the logic to its predictable end and expected schools to actually be used by the “resistance”, that is, Hamas, for patently illegal and deadly purposes.
But in a third incident UNRWA’s see-no-evil mentality had tragic, indeed deadly, consequences. A school in the Gaza neighborhood of Bet Hanoun where refugees from the fighting had fled was apparently used as a Hamas firing position. The details are unclear except that an explosion killed at least 16 children.
Instantly UNRWA blamed Israel for the deaths. But an Israeli investigation suggests it was a Hamas rocket that fell short, and a just released video shows an Israeli mortar round striking an empty courtyard. Even UNRWA has changed its tune slightly and now claims it does not know who was responsible.
The loss of life is tragic and regrettable, and may or may not have been avoidable. But it is a measure of UNRWA’s reflexive anti-Israel bias and instinct to protect itself that it tweeted first and investigated later. The narrative of Israel’s unnecessary and violent attack was created and repeated by a world press that cannot see Hamas’ human shields, rockets, or tunnels.
Only here and there do reporters let slip that Hamas officials were seen using hospitals as headquarters, that rockets are being stored in mosques and fired from residential neighborhoods and schoolyards, and that Hamas supporters intimidate reporters into silence, beating and even executing critics as “collaborators.” There is little wonder the press refuses to question UNRWA more deeply.
UNRWA learned long ago to wave the bloody shirt, proclaim its formal neutrality, and act as unofficial Palestinian spokesmen with the imprimatur of the United Nations. As Hamas’ tunnels are being discovered to lead into everyday Gaza residences, however, it is becoming impossible to assert that UNRWA saw nothing and knew nothing. What is clear is that it did nothing until it absolutely had to.
These incidents are the latest illustration of the full integration of UNRWA into Palestinian society. It is the internationally funded education, health, and welfare department, the legal department, and the public relations department, for Palestinian society-in competition with, and often more influential than, the Palestinian Authority. Before the current crisis is over it will undoubtedly launch yet another emergency appeal to expands its role even further.
It is worth emphasizing just how unprecedented the situation really is. On the one hand, there is a United Nations organization created in 1949 for refugee relief providing an ever-increasing range of services to the third or fourth generation of refugee descendants some 65 years later, is utterly unprecedented. And on the other, those third and fourth generation descendants still demand to be regarded as refugees and supported by the international community, while being still forbidden to resettle in the Arab countries where they have lived for decades (except for Jordan). All this is expected to continue until the Palestinians’ preferred resolution to the conflict is realized-namely, the end of Israel and their return to a world that no longer exists.
In any post-conflict reconstruction plan for the demilitarization of Gaza and its rebuilding, international donors will be well advised to phase out UNRWA and channel funds to legitimate Palestinian institutions, with an eye to ending more than sixty years of Palestinian welfare dependence. In the meantime, UNRWA should be vigilant about who uses its schools during the summer months, and we should be vigilant about its political claims.
Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Romirowsky and Joffe are co-authors of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.