Every time there is a new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UNRWA is caught in the middle—both physically and politically. When the Agency criticizes certain Israeli practices—for example, attacks on its facilities— it comes under fire from certain self-appointed Israeli advocacy groups. When it does things Hamas doesn’t like—for example, its human rights curriculum or summer youth activities—it comes under direct and indirect criticism from Hamas-aligned groups too.
We see that again with the current conflict. In the Wall Street Journal, for example, one hysterical op-ed has labelled UNRWA the “handmaiden of Hamas,” calling it “one of the U.N.’s most perverse, destructive creations.”
In this climate of political polarization, where thoughtful commentary is driven out by fear, loathing, and misinformation, the Jewish Daily Forward offers a more thoughtful and nuanced take on the Israeli-UNRWA relationship:
WASHINGTON — The rumor spread quickly on news websites and social media during the third week of the recent Gaza war: Three Israeli soldiers had been killed when, according to the report, they discovered a booby-trapped Hamas tunnel right under a medical facility run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
It could have been a devastating blow for the already beleaguered international agency, had it been true.
But it was the Israel Defense Forces that stepped in to stop the rumor and deny its veracity. An officer on the ground even called up UNRWA headquarters to alert the agency to the claims and to ensure that its officials were prepared to respond.
That might seem counterintuitive at first sight. UNRWA and the IDF have just gone through the toughest stretch in their relationship. During the days of fighting, Israeli forces broke with international rules and bombed UNRWA buildings time and again, killing dozens of civilians. And caches of Hamas weapons were found in some of the U.N. agency’s facilities, which are supposed to be neutral and demilitarized.
But even at this low point, as each side hurled accusations at the other, Israel and the U.N. continued to nurture their decades-long relationship. UNRWA closely coordinated its work with Israel’s military. And Israel still enjoyed the peace and quiet of knowing that an international agency was taking care of the health care, education and employment needs of many of the Palestinians for which Israel would otherwise be held responsible as Gaza’s ruler under international law.
“I’m sure it does surprise people to learn that we have a good relationship with the Israeli army,” UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said in an August 1 phone interview from his office in Jerusalem. An Israeli defense official who was not authorized to speak on record agreed, noting that “more often than not, we get along just fine” with the U.N. agency….
UNRWA is in a bind even talking about these things. If it discusses practical cooperation with local authorities in Gaza, certain extreme partisans of Israel attack the organization. If it discusses practical cooperation with Israel, it makes it harder for the Agency to work in the occupied Palestinian territory. The messaging must constantly be recalibrated in a careful balancing act.
However, the truth is that Israel depends on UNRWA to bandage over some of the consequences of both its blockade (which has left around half the Gazan population in need of UN food aid) and military actions (whereby UNRWA can be counted upon to care for those driven from their homes by Israeli bombing). Israel also much prefers that Palestinians go to UNRWA schools (where they get largely the same curriculum used in the West Bank and even Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem) than Hamas-controlled schools (where no neutrality policy prevents classroom propaganda). Unlike others, it can count on UNRWA to prevent the leakage of aid resources into Hamas hands. And, although not widely known, UNRWA provides its entire employee list to Israel and host countries on a regular basis for security vetting.
The result is public discourse that is often out of alignment with Israeli practice. This isn’t helped by the tendency for some Israeli politicians and officials to publicly berate the Agency even as their government works with it as a practical matter. The net result is the sort of paradox seen when Canada, under prodding from advocacy groups, ended support to the Agency in 2009. Far from praising the move, the Israeli government actually lobbied Ottawa to restart funding, and even to expand it.