Since Hamas's complete takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Palestinians in the new 'Islamic State of Gaza' have been crying out for more aid and are turning to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Their reliance upon UNRWA comes as no surprise. The organization has been providing food, medicine, and social services to the Palestinian people for more than 60 years. Unfortunately, UNRWA has never taken steps to withhold its assistance to Islamist groups. Today, UNRWA provides direct financial and material support to Hamas.
According to a recent critical report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) - the State Department's oversight of aid administered to Palestinians through the U.S. Agency for International Development and UNRWA has fallen short.
The practical result is that the steady Islamist indoctrination and glorification of violence many Palestinians receive arrives courtesy of U.S. taxpayer dollars.
According to WAFA, the official PLO news agency, we, as US taxpayers, contributed $55.3 million to the UNRWA's General Fund, bringing the total 2009 U.S. contribution to UNRWA to $154.5 million.
By comparison, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which serves refugees worldwide with a staff of 6,450 had, in 2005, a budget of $992 million to support 19.2 million refugees and asylum seekers in 116 countries. While UNRWA, in the same year, with a staff of 24,300, had a budget of $339 million to support 4.1 million refugees in just five areas.
Although the refugees benefit from UNRWA, the organization benefits more from the refugees. These refugees are the organization's raison d'etre. Accordingly, UNRWA has zero incentive to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem; ending the refugee problem would render the agency obsolete.
As such, UNRWA appears to be concerned primarily with its own survival and continued funding.
As Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd stated after the Hamas takeover, "we are not scared. Donor countries have not in any way said they will stop their aid to UNRWA. On the contrary, we were approached by many of these countries, even Israel, asking us to continue our services to Palestinian refugees and perhaps even extend these services to do things we haven't done before."
Long ago UNRWA schools became hotbeds of anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Semitic indoctrination, and recruiting offices for terrorist groups. The vast majority of UNRWA's employees are Palestinians who run the local offices and subsidize Islamist groups while potentially intimidating anyone from voicing a different line. UNRWA facilities are used to store and transport weapons, and have actually served as military bases.
The curriculum in UNRWA-sponsored schools reflects the rejectionist ideology of Palestinian extremists rather than the building of future peaceful coexistence through education.
In direct contradiction to the United Nations Charter which "obliges all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end, Palestinian children in UNRWA schools are deprived of historical literacy. In a deliberate exercise of Holocaust denial, any references to the genocide visited upon the Jews have been excised from the curriculum. As stated by Abu Zayd, "I can refute allegations that UN school curriculum includes anything about the Holocaust."
The purge was a direct response from UNRWA-Gaza director John Ging's office to complaints from refugee camp officials. The committees grumbled that "we … categorically refuse to let our children be taught this lie created by the Jews. [The Holocaust] is not a fact, and those who added it to the curriculum intended to mess with our children's emotions."Although it is not rare for UNRWA to pander to extremist demands, rarely is it so transparent. In the process of being co-opted by the fringe radicals of its own constituency, UNRWA has broken all the rules that are presumed to govern humanitarian enterprises. In its countenancing of fanatics, it has turned its own mandate squarely on its head -- discouraging resettlement; allowing, if not pursuing political stances; and putting refugees in the direct line of danger.
By practice or design, UNRWA is the exact opposite of other refugee relief operations (such as those orchestrated by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees). UNHCR actually seeks to resettle refugees; UNRWA is dedicated to blocking resettlement in favor of the 'right of return.'
As US taxpayers, we annually fund more than a third of UNRWA's budget. Given the organization's ties to terrorist groups like Hamas, we are de facto financing such dubious activities.
After much pressure from Congressman like Mark Kirk (R - IL) and Steve Rothman (D - NJ) and others we are currently seeing the genesis of a move in the right direction. A new bill (entitled UNRWA Accountability) demands transparency and responsibility from UNRWA. The bill seeks to ensure that the monies funneled to UNRWA from the United States do not fund acts of terrorism in any way (bringing the funding into compliance with the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961).
The bill goes further, underscoring the need to evaluate the text books used in Palestinian UNRWA schools -- to ascertain there is no "inflammatory and inaccurate information about the United States and the State of Israel, anti-Semitic teaching, as well as the glorification of terrorists."
Those truly concerned about the vitality of Palestinian society and its future in the context of a peaceful region ought to reconsider the viability of UNRWA's current role in Gaza.
Now that policy-makers and individuals are increasingly aware of UNRWA's problems, how can UNRWA's hold be significantly decreased?
If the creation of institutions that will foster civil society and promote some element of democratization are definitive goals, it follows that the current UNRWA model is an abject failure.
UNRWA's ability to act independently has been compromised by its having been co-opted, however one possible remedy is the reassignment of services UNRWA currently provides to parallel agencies within the UN.
Moreover, the stated ambition of the Palestinians (both through Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank) is independence and statehood. The international community as well as the Palestinians have a vested interest in the fostering of a literate and politically healthy culture. UNRWA and its radical shadow-leaders work against this aim.
It is past time to remove UNRWA from the scene and give the Palestinians the freedom - and the responsibility - for building their own society.
Ultimately our tax dollars would be better spent promoting independent Palestinian organizations and private-sector growth. UNRWA on the other hand works towards ensuring its own survival by perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem.
Asaf Romirowsky is a PhD candidate at Kings College London, focusing on UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) documenting when and how they lost their humanitarian integrity as a UN agency and an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum. Nicole Brackman, Ph.D. is a former Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She writes and speaks on Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs.