After a shelling outside an United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees school in Rafah where at least 10 more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki came out with a harsh statement, saying that "the United States is appalled by today's disgraceful shelling" and urging Israel to do more to "avoid civilian casualties" and protect U.N. facilities.
Psaki's comment speaks volumes about how the Obama administration has treated Israel's actions in Gaza. This is troubling given the amount of evidence we have seen over the course of Operation Protective Edge, where in four separate instances UNRWA schools and clinics have harbored arms and terrorists.
The operation focused on Israel's effort to dismantle the terror threat that — Hamas has made no secret — is intended to launch debilitating attacks against civilians, and has put a significant spotlight on UNRWA and its activities.
What is very clear is that UNRWA has done nothing to prevent its schools or facilities from lending a hand to terrorism by providing shelter and bases for weapons, rocket launches, and terrorist command personnel.
All of this warrants a deeper look into an agency that has no parallel in the U.N. system. UNRWA, which had been dedicated to the preservation Palestinian refugees, has been in existence since 1949. The agency's relationship with Palestinian terrorism is a long one, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization achieved international political status and practical authority over the UNRWA refugee camps. As such it is no surprise that Hamas infiltrated and co-opted UNRWA facilities as early as 2002. While the U.S. government has not ignored the misuse of U.S.-sponsored aid (over $200 million annually), serious efforts to reform it have not come to fruition.
Since the 1970s, a number of congressional resolutions have sought to limit or cut off funding to UNRWA, and Congress regularly introduces language into appropriations bills requiring UNRWA to promote transparency, self-policing, and accountability with regard to vetting employees for terrorist connections as well as eliminating the promotion of terrorism in educational materials.
In 2002, Rep. Tom Lantos, then ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that "UNRWA officials have not only failed to prevent their camps from becoming centers of terrorist activity, but have also failed to report these developments to you." Annan replied, "The United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recently wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry characterizing UNRWA's behavior in the conflict as "troubling."
Not much has changed regarding UNRWA's activities over the years, but it has become clearer that there should be no illusions regarding UNRWA's role as a neutral protector of Palestinian refugee rights. Any illusions were shattered when 20 rockets were discovered in an UNRWA school in July. Agency spokesman Chris Gunness proclaimed the appearance of the rockets "mysterious" and denied that turning over the rockets to the local police bomb squad was tantamount to directly arming Hamas.
While there could have been no doubt that the rockets were deliberately embedded among civilians — and meant to be launched into Israel, provoking a retaliatory response that would have inevitably put innocent Palestinians in harm's way — Gunness denied there was anything improper about the handover, citing a U.N. practice of turning over unexploded ordnance to local authorities.
Following the discovery of the rockets, Gunness stated, "We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school. This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises." He went on to say, "We call on all the warring parties to respect the inviolability of U.N. property."
But while Gunness and company may argue neutrality, UNRWA long ago abandoned that status. While Kerry rightly placed blame for the conflict squarely at Hamas' door — stating that the terror organization "has a fundamental choice to make" in ceasing the firing of rockets at Israel — he simultaneously earmarked $15 million in emergency funding for UNRWA's humanitarian projects.
And after the shelling of a U.N. school (after more rockets were fired at Israel from the direct vicinity of the school where they were positioned precisely to draw Israeli fire), White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the Israeli action "indefensible" and demanded Israel "do more to ensure the safety of civilians in the clashes between Israel and Hamas."
The bigger issue remains the politicization of UNRWA as a U.N. body that defends and advocates for Hamas while using its status as a nongovernmental organization to justify its actions. Turning a blind eye to Hamas using UNRWA installations as bases for terror, turning caches of weapons found in them over to Hamas to be used against Israel, and allowing civilians under its jurisdiction to be exploited as human shields, is a war crime.
Asaf Romirowsky is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and co-author of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief. Nicole Brackman is a historian who writes extensively on Israeli and Middle East politics.