Why UNRWA’s Funding Should Be Cut
The Trump administration’s decision to slash annual funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by half has drawn special attention to the UN body, and this is an opportunity we should seize.
On August 9, Foreign Policy published a column by Colum Lynch that asserted the White House’s position on UNRWA — the belief that the relief agency must either undergo fundamental reordering or be abolished — is a policy “well to the right of the American mainstream.”
That assertion is deeply misleading to readers.
This issue is not a matter of left or right. Advancing peace, reconciliation, and coexistence is a moral imperative, not a political matter. Those who want to see a lasting settlement between Israelis and Palestinians — particularly my fellow Democrats and progressives — should embrace those efforts, taking the lead of well-known peace activists like former Israeli Labor Party leader Einat Wilf, who champion self-determination and dignity for all.
UNRWA has created a mentality of perpetual victimhood among Palestinians — i.e. “the right of return” — an ideology that perpetuates a false promise (the end of the Jewish state) and legitimizes an often violent addiction to the destruction of Israel. UNWRA’s role in perpetuating that false notion is a major impediment to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
UNRWA is the only refugee agency in the world and Palestinians the only category of refugee covered under its mandate that defines refugee status in a way that is inherited endlessly by descendants for generation after generation, no matter where one is born, lives, or becomes a citizen. This has created a parallel reality that is prolonging the suffering of millions of Palestinians and undermining the concept of two states for two peoples.
The number of Palestinian refugees has been extended by UNRWA to the point of absurdity. In reality, the actual number of Palestinians who can still meet the true definition of “refugee” today is no more than several tens of thousands. Yet UNRWA uniquely defines virtually every Palestinian born since the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-1949 as a refugee; a number that reaches nearly five million by UNWRA’s Palestinian-only definition.
In UNRWA’s 70 years of existence, the agency has made no notable political advancements towards a better future for the peoples of the region, Arab or Jewish, despite adopting an inherently political agenda.
According to UNRWA, a Palestinian refugee is anyone who resided in “Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict,” as well as all their descendants and even divorced spouses of a different nationality. They all have access to UNRWA’s free services, including education, health care, and social assistance. While for UNHCR — the UN agency that deals with all other refugees in the world — to classify someone as a refugee requires that person to be either persecuted or stateless, UNRWA continues to recognize hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere. No other people in the world are registered as refugees while being citizens of another country or territory.
Meanwhile, UNRWA has done nothing to fight for the rights of Syrian- and Lebanese-born Palestinians, who face abhorrent discrimination in their home countries. In Lebanon, they are barred from over 30 professions, including medicine, law, engineering, and education.
It gets more absurd, considering that more than half of the Palestinian Arabs who fled in 1947-1949 did not leave Arab-Palestinian territory, but relocated to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, waiting for Arab leaders to fulfill their promises “to drive the Jews into the sea.” Millions of Palestinians today are described as “refugees,” despite being born and living on Palestinian territory ruled by the Palestinian Authority and the terror group Hamas, which they elected. They seek “return” to a country where they have never lived.
UNRWA explicitly supports them in their goal, which explains why the agency operates the largest educational establishment in the Middle East. Around half a million children study in 703 schools and are taught by UNRWA curricula that they are victims of Israeli expulsion and have inherited “the right of return” — a right which, if necessary, must be achieved by force.
Fourteen years ago, the Canadian government called for an investigation into UNRWA after Israel claimed that the organization was employing members of Hamas. At the time, the Canadian TV station CBC interviewed the then-UNRWA General Commissioner Peter Hansen, who admitted frankly: “Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”
More than a decade later, nothing has changed. The fact that Hamas members are embedded in UNRWA’s ranks is neither an unfortunate coincidence nor a simple oversight, but the logical consequence of an aid agency that has morphed into a thinly-masked political organization with a radical agenda.
An investigation by UN Watch last year unearthed some disturbing facts. UNRWA teachers praised Hitler and celebrated Palestinian terrorists as “martyrs.” Another teacher called for the murder of Jews, while other colleagues propagated conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. In addition, the teaching and learning materials used in UNRWA schools are full of antisemitic content. The State of Israel does not exist on maps, and children learn that Jews have no rights whatsoever in the region, but only “greedy ambitions.”
Why does this matter for peace? Because UNRWA is creating a climate in which hatred and violence become legitimate political and ideological options for Palestinian children. And if UNRWA also promises those millions of Arabs who are citizens of other countries the right to relocate to Israel, then Israel would no longer exist as a Jewish state.
UNRWA is actively working against two states for two peoples — the dominant paradigm of US foreign policy from Clinton to Bush and Obama. If the agency gets its way, the only country in the world in which Jews are a majority would simply cease to exist. This is not the pathway to peace. It’s a recipe for perpetual failure and conflict. It’s time to acknowledge that reality and introduce real reform at UNRWA.
Joshua S. Block is CEO and President of The Israel Project. He is a former Clinton administration official and spokesman at the State Department’s USAID. He got his start on Capitol Hill in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and was a spokesman for the Clinton/Gore and Gore/Lieberman presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter @JoshBlockDC.