Opinion | Abolish the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees


United Nations agencies and officials are no strangers to scandal and infamy.

UN peacekeepers caused a cholera epidemic in Haiti and committed horrible Sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UN’s oil-for-food program for Iraq became a multi-million dollar bribery scheme through which Saddam Hussein practically bribed his way out of international sanctions. In the 1980s, Kurt Waldheim, former UN Secretary General, was unmasked as a former Nazi. He was the same secretary-general who denounced Israel’s rescue of Jewish hostages in Entebbe in 1976 as “a grave violation” of Uganda’s national sovereignty.

Now comes the latest scandal from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, better known as UNRWA.

Last Friday, Israeli officials presented the US government with an intelligence dossier detailing the involvement of 12 UNRWA employees, seven of them teachers, in the October 7 massacre. As the Times’ Ronen Bergman and Patrick Kingsley reported, the charges range from kidnapping an Israeli woman to stockpiling rocket-propelled grenades to murdering civilians at a kibbutz.

Pretty horrible, and the UN is right moved quickly terminate the employment of nine of the people identified in the file. But that may be the least of it. “Intelligence estimates shared with the United States conclude that about 1,200 of the approximately 12,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza have ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and about half have close relatives who belong to the Islamist militant groups,” The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The figures are worth keeping in mind the next time you weigh the credibility of information about Gaza provided to the UN. It’s also worth keeping in mind that this has been going on for years. Like Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group observed more than a decade ago“For UNRWA to survive, they accept (Hamas’) conditions because they want to continue their activities.”

The new revelations were enough for the Biden administration to suspend its funding to the agency, worth nearly $350 million in 2022, while it investigates the allegations. As of Tuesday, other major financiers, including France, Germany and Japan, have followed suit.

That’s a start. But the agency’s fundamental problem is not that it appears to be infested with terrorists and their sympathizers, or that its salaries are paid by naive foreign donors. It is that UNRWA may be the only agency in the United Nations system whose central purpose is to perpetuate grievances and conflicts. It should be abolished.

Think about it this way. The United Nations has two agencies dedicated to the plight of refugees. One the UN High Commissioner for Refugeesis responsible for the well-being of almost all of the world’s more than 30 million refugees, and is mandated to help them resettle in third countries if they cannot return home.

The other is UNRWA, which in theory operates under the umbrella of the high commissioner but is actually its own organization. No other group except the Palestinians has its own permanent agency.

Because? In part, because neighboring Arab countries countries like Lebanon It callously refused to fully absorb Palestinian refugees, denying them not only citizenship but also, in many cases, the right to most forms of work. In 1991, Kuwait went further by expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in a matter of days, because Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had supported Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War. Let’s think about that the next time Arab governments profess solidarity with the Palestinian people.

As bad as cruelty is cynicism. The shifting borders and postwar independence movements produced millions of refugees: Germans, Indians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Jews, including about 800,000 Jews who were expelled from the Arab countries that had been their homes for centuries. Almost everyone found new lives in new countries, except the Palestinians. They have been kept as perpetual refugees as a means both to delegitimize Israel and to preserve the irredentist fantasy that one day their descendants will exercise what they believe to be their “right of return,” effectively by eliminating the Jewish state.

It is on this supposed right that efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians they have sunk. It is also the right that the very existence of UNRWA keeps alive. Palestinians should be citizens of the countries in which they live, just as some two million Arabs in Israel are. They should not be cudgels in an endless struggle, subsidized from one aggrieved generation to the next by international largesse.

UNRWA advocates insist that without it, Palestinian civilians will suffer even more. But there is no reason why other international agencies cannot shoulder the burden of the immediate relief effort for Gazans. In the meantime, the Biden administration and other governments must ask tough questions of UNRWA’s senior officials, starting with Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini.

To wit: If Lazzarini and his deputies did not know that UNRWA in Gaza was employing potentially hundreds of Hamas members or sympathizers, what kind of oversight were they exercising? And if they knew, aren’t they responsible? In any case (gross negligence or silent complicity), they must resign now.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be insoluble. But it cannot be resolved as long as millions of Palestinians have become the world’s only permanent refugees. By doing so, UNRWA becomes an obstacle to peace, reason enough for it to eventually disappear.

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