An Israeli legislator thinks she has the solution for curing the United Nations’ biggest agency of its reputation as a black hole for hundreds of millions in donor funds – let taxpayers know where their money is going.
Sharen Haskell, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, said the UN Relief and Works Agency, the UN’s largest independent body known by its acronym UNRWA, needs to be reformed so taxpayers in donor countries know what they’re getting for the billions of dollars paid into UNRWA over the years.
“We are not here to get rid of UNRWA. We are here to reform it,” Haskell told a special meeting at the Knesset last month attended by diplomats and NGOs. Haskel thinks American and European taxpayers demanded an accounting for the billions their governments have donated over the years to UNRWA.
“A lot of their tax money goes into UNRWA whether they know it or not,” Haskell said. “The donors need to audit the funds that flow into UNRWA. This would definitely address the widespread and documented reports of wasted resources (and) duplicity of services.”
America contributed $380 million to UNRWA in 2015, followed by the EU ($137M) and the UK ($99M). The funding issue was problematic enough that both the United States and Canada signed separate agreements with UNRWA that conditioned future financing on the implementation of reforms including education.
Dr. Arnon Groiss, retired deputy director of Israel Broadcasting Authority Arabic language division, has been analyzing Palestinian schoolbooks used in UNRWA schools for two decades. With a PHD in Islamic Studies from Princeton, Groiss heads a study by the Center for Near East Policy Research, an Israeli NGO, translating all Palestinian Authority textbooks used by UNRWA. Pointing out that the textbooks teach Palestinian children that violence is good and there is no such thing as peace with Israel, Groiss testified that UNRWA being in charge of education has been a disaster for the peace process.
“It’s impossible. I mean they [UNRWA] will not change their ways. [They should] just quit education,” Groiss told the Knesset meeting. “Continue with their health care services, social services, whatever. But quit education because you are perpetuating the conflict instead of solving it.”
When questioned about the textbook content in UNRWA schools, a State Department spokesperson said they “take such reports seriously. We are in regular contact with UNRWA to ensure any allegation of inflammatory, biased, or inciteful content in education materials is thoroughly investigated and addressed.” However, when asked if the Americans were monitoring textbook content, the spokesperson would only say “the U.S. government has supported UNRWA in the development and integration of educational materials that promote human rights, conflict resolution, and tolerance.”
In 2016 Canada restored their $25M in funding to what a news report called the “controversial Palestinian aid agency.” Canadian embassy spokesperson in Tel Aviv Philip Hannan said “Canada is monitoring UNRWA very closely. Our re-engagement with UNRWA gives us a seat at the table, which allows us to insist on accountability and to ensure greater transparency.”
However, despite Canada conditioning the funds on UNRWA implementing reforms, a Canadian government spokesperson in Ottawa admitted in an email that the special “neutrality coordinator” tasked with oversight is actually an UNRWA employee and not an outside impartial observer.
Haskell noted that some funds had previously gone to Hamas activities, adding “we also need to see how we cease paramilitary training in all UNRWA schools.” Donors “need to be aware what are the consequence of their money, where it goes and what kind of reality it actually brings,” she added.
UNRWA funds also go to the Gaza Strip where Hamas seized power in a bloody military coup a decade ago. Supported by Iran, Hamas is recognized by the US and most western countries as a terrorist organization whose leaders repeatedly criticize the U.S., state they are opposed to any peace process with Israel and are committed to armed conflict.
“I think that if I paid taxes to my country and then they would invest it in something that I completely disagree with or something that might actually threaten my own country in an indirect way, I would definitely want to know about it.” Haskell said.
President Donald Trump’s calling out the United Nations last year for its “bureaucracy and mismanagement” got a sympathetic hearing in Israel, where lawmakers have complained for decades about the U.N.’s bias against Israel which emerges in what pedagogic experts see as a biased education system in UNRWA schools.
Haskell wants foreign taxpayers to join in the movement and get their governments to audit the money they give to UNRWA, whose mission is to support Palestinian refugees.
“One of the main problems is UNRWA giving sort of a cover up for terrorist activities,” she said, pointing out that over the past three years Hamas military tunnels and terrorist weapons caches were found in or under UN schools and hospitals in Gaza.
UNRWA is the UN’s largest agency with an annual budget of about $1.2 billion and employs over 30,000 Palestinians, making it also the biggest employer of Palestinians ranging from teachers to garbage truck drivers to staffing its own television station. It operates over 700 schools for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Israel has complained for years that UNRWA helps perpetuate the problem rather than solving it. While the UN works to settle all other refugees in the world, Haskell said UNRWA’s mandate is to wait for an end to what was the Israeli-Arab conflict and is now the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. Haskel says UNRWA works to preserve the status quo and instead of the Palestinians running the schools, the UN foots the bill, but doesn’t question the curriculum that Haskel says is anti-peace and pro-violence.
“Somebody has an interest for them (Palestinians) to stay in those refugee camps so that UNRWA can continue pouring your dollars for incitement against the state of Israel,” Likud Party legislator Yehuda Glick told diplomats at the Knesset meeting. “I think it’s not our obligation (to monitor the funds). It’s yours because the United Nations represent each and every one of us.”
“It’s your dollars. It’s your Euros,” Glick said. “Your Euros are going to institutions that are called schools, that are called hospitals, that are different kinds of humanitarian institutions who are taking those dollars and Euros to educate or incite children.”