The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an organization which receives a large portion of its funding from American taxpayers, was criticized last week in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry from a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House of Representatives. The letter called for a thorough review of the agency’s actions during the recent conflict between Israel and the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza.
The letter, written by Reps. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), asked Kerry and the State Department to conduct an independent investigation into UNRWA’s misuse of its Gaza facilities, such as schools, refugee housing and emergency shelters, during Operation Protective Edge.
“As a major recipient of U.S. tax dollars, UNRWA must take more robust measures to ensure its facilities are not being used to facilitate terrorism,” said Higgins. “I urge the State Department to take the appropriate and necessary action.”
The letter highlighted three separate occasions when U.N. officials discovered rockets stored inside UNRWA facilities. On at least one occasion, the rockets were turned over to officials from the Palestinian Authority unity government, represented in Gaza by the ruling Hamas organization. The rockets subsequently disappeared.
“While we do not advocate a cutoff in funding at this time, these issues must be addressed,” the letter states. “… [T]he United States has a responsibility to ensure that UNRWA facilities and personnel are not being used to perpetrate or facilitate acts of terrorism.”
The United States is the largest single contributor to the organization which, although not funded by the U.N., solicits funding from nations based on its U.N. mandate. According to the letter, which was signed by a bipartisan group of 67 members of Congress, the United States gave the organization $297 million in 2013. By law, funding of the organization is contingent on its neutrality.
UNRWA, established in 1949 to provide aid to Palestinian refugees, administers health care, education and social services to individuals registered with the organization as refugees. The number registered by the organization as refugees currently, which includes children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original refugees, now exceeds 5 million.
Congress has long viewed the agency with skepticism, but its calls to conduct an investigation gained further urgency during and after Operation Protective Edge.
Back in August, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), authored their own letter to Kerry, accusing UNRWA of maintaining “active and extensive ties with Hamas,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
The post-conflict debate over UNRWA’s legitimacy has also gained traction in Israel, whose defense and security establishments have long protected and provided diplomatic legitimacy to the organization, believing that no matter how biased its workers may be, getting rid of the organization would cause further instability among Palestinians.
“I think what happened this summer is that it’s becoming more and more evident that UNRWA merely masks itself under a false façade of being a welfare or a humanitarian organization, whereas it is completely a political organization with a specific political mission, and that political mission is to keep alive forever the notion of the ‘right of return,’ ” said Einat Wilf, senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute and a former member of the Knesset.
“When we think of U.N. organizations, we think of external organizations with neutral people who really have a higher goal and are truly neutral in a conflict wanting only the alleviation of suffering,” continued Wilf. “Nothing can be further from the truth for UNRWA. UNRWA is a Palestinian organization, which again, masks itself with a thin façade of Europeans at the top, so that when they go to get donations from North American and European nations, they present a European face to them.”
A recent study by the International Crisis Group highlighted many of the problems that Wilf and other UNRWA critics have been talking about.
The report quoted a U.N. official saying that “[Palestinians] attribute unnatural, almost supernatural significance to UNRWA as the embodiment of the promise of international justice. It’s not just or even mainly about classrooms and desks. It is seen as a proxy for the refugee issue itself.”
Wilf said that when Western countries fund UNRWA “they are funding a political organization that is directly opposed to the official policy of Western countries, which is to promote peace by means of two countries for two people.”
During Operation Protective edge, caches of Hamas rockets were found in UNRWA facilities on three separate occasions.
In the first incident on July 16, the rockets were given back to what UNRWA officials called the Palestinian authorities, and are believed to have been returned to Hamas. More rockets were found in a U.N. school on July 22, followed by another cache on July 30 – with UNRWA claiming that they were unable to remove and disarm the rockets, according to the Times of Israel.
That website also reported that on July 29, three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were killed when Hamas militants detonated an UNRWA clinic where the soldiers were investigating an entrance to a smuggling tunnel.
UNRWA representatives denied any prior knowledge in all of these incidents, but did publish statements condemning the misuse of its facilities. Nevertheless, the organization spent most of its time leading efforts to attack Israel in the media.
On a number of occasions, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness, who could not be reached for comment on this story, urged reporters through his Twitter account to call and interview Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor and activist who was volunteering at a Gaza hospital at the time. Gilbert is best known for telling a Norwegian newspaper that the United States deserved the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that he supported them. Gilbert also testified against Israel on Sept. 24 for the International War Crimes Tribunal, calling Israel’s actions during Protective Edge a genocide.
In late September, the organization initiated a social media campaign called #Freedom4Gaza, which was aimed at telling leaders who met in in Cairo on Oct. 12 to discuss the rebuilding of Gaza, to push for an end to the Israeli Naval blockade. UNRWA’s activism goes against previous statements by the U.S. State Department acknowledging the need to monitor trade in and out of Gaza.
On the anniversary of the “Victory Flotilla,” June 24, 2011, former State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, said that “recent seizures by Israel and Egypt of advanced military systems, weapons, and ammunition bound for terrorist groups in Gaza, as well as periodic rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza against Israeli civilians, highlight the continuing problem of illicit arms smuggling to Gaza. These seizures underscore the vital importance to Israel’s security of ensuring that all cargo bound for Gaza is appropriately screened for illegal arms and dual-use materials.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
JNS.org contributed to this article.