Israel and UNRWA

Posted: August 8, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Israel, UNRWA


Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike over a UN school in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip early on January 17, 2009 . (AFP)

Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike over a UN school in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip early on January 17, 2009 . (AFP)

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:

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.

  1. Toby block says:

    I notice the bias. Israel is criticized for “bombing UNRWA schools”; Hamas is criticized for its schools and summer camps (should be “criticized for anti-Jewish invective in its texts and paramilitary training in its summer camps”). The question that you don’t ask is why are Palestinians still classified as refugees (no other group gets to pass refugee status down from one generation to the next) especially when they have an agency dedicated to their rehabilitation (UNHCR handles all other refugee problems worldwide).

    The Gazans aren’t starving. Israel has been providing food, medicine, fuel, and electricity even when under attack. Unemployment is high because Hamas wants the people to be poor. When Israel withdrew all Jewish communities in 2005, American Jews purchased 3,000 state-of-the-art greenhouses and gifted them to the Gazans. They were destroyed in one week. Plans for an Israeli/Gazan industrial park on the border had to be abandoned because of the constant rocket fire from Gaza.

  2. Rex Brynen says:


    Thanks for the comments. Regarding refugee status, however, ALL stateless groups get to pass down their refugee status–UNHCR calls this “derived status,” and used it (for example) with multi-generational Afghan refugees in Pakistan. A very large share of those refugees who returned to Afghanistan post-2002 had been born outside the country. In the Palestinian case, refugees currently in the WB, Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon would all count as refugees under UNHCR rules too. Most of those in Jordan would not count as refugees–however, Israel’s close relations with Jordan means it hasn’t pushed the point (rather, it wants more aid to Jordan–not less, as does the US).

    Gazans don’t starve because of UN emergency feeding programs–the amount allowed in by Israel is not sufficient. More importantly, the near-complete ban on Gaza exports (for punitive, not security, reasons) means that Gazans have insufficient purchasing power to feed their families without aid. As you’ll know if you follow the Israeli press closely, the IDF has adhered to a 2,300 calorie per person policy in Gaza. However, that amount can only be obtained with UN food aid to c800,000 Gazans–without it, the food supply would not be sufficient. Again, if you read my post carefully you’ll see that I’m not claiming that Gazans are starving, only that Israel relies on UNRWA (and WFP) to assure that they aren’t starving.

    As for the greenhouses, they weren’t looted within a week. Rather, they were abandoned and looted after Israel blocked export of their product and they became financially unsustainable.

    In any case, the clear proof of the general point I’m making is that for all the criticism of UNRWA, Israel has long been a quietly asking countries to increase, not decrease, their contributions to the Agency.

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