Palestinians in the new Islamic State of Gaza, crying out for more aid from the United Nations, are turning to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for help. Their reliance upon UNRWA comes as no surprise. The organization has been providing food, medicine, and social services to the Palestinian people for 57 years. Unfortunately, UNRWA has never taken steps to withhold assistance to extremist groups. In some cases, it has cooperated openly with terrorists. Today, as UNRWA provides assistance in Gaza, it is directly providing financial and material support to the Hamas terrorist organization.
A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
According to the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees, up to 825,000 of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants claim refugee status. These Gazans receive food rations and other assistance through the United Nations, including medicine, education, and even jobs via UNRWA.
While 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.
The interests of the refugees and UNRWA are so intertwined that UNRWA is staffed in situ mainly by local Palestinians—more than 23,000 of them—with only about 100 international United Nations professionals. While the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Fund) avoid employing locals who are also recipients of agency services, UNRWA does not make this distinction.
Thus, in the interest of self-perpetuation, UNRWA seeks to maintain the violent status quo in the Middle East, even if it means turning a blind eye to terror.
Helping Hamas Govern Gaza
Supporting the status quo means that UNRWA can be counted on to support the new Hamas government, so long as Hamas enables UNRWA's continued existence. UNRWA is only too eager to provide the services that Hamas does not, cannot, or chooses not to. Hamas can continue to divert international monies that should be earmarked for food or electricity to the stockpiling of weapons and the creation of anti-Israel or anti-American propaganda as long as UNRWA provides the services that the negligent Hamas government should fulfill. In this way, UNRWA is undermining the Western strategy of weakening the Hamas government in Gaza to encourage the return of Palestinian Authority rule under President Mahmoud Abbas.
UNRWA does not hide this. As Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd states, UNRWA's goal "is to reconstruct houses, create jobs, and micro-financing." It has been filling this role since 1991, when UNRWA launched its micro-finance and micro-enterprise program (MMP) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, UNRWA provides services that the Palestinian economic ministry or treasury should handle. UNRWA, originally conceived as a temporary apparatus to ease the refugees' economic plight more than a half-century ago, has been providing the Palestinians of Gaza (as well as the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) with critical economic services for a decade so that the Palestinian government, whether Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, can continue to concentrate on "resistance."
Supporting the Hamas Platform
UNRWA does not seem to have a problem with Hamas' Islamist agenda. It has not condemned the brutal Hamas violence that enabled the terrorist group to take the Gaza Strip by force in June. UNRWA waited to see who would win the battle, then immediately indicated to Hamas that it was eager to get back to providing its services.
UNRWA only appears to be concerned with its own survival and continued funding. As AbuZayd recently said 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."
As long as it can continue to feed refugees, UNRWA does not appear to be scared of Hamas' terrorist agenda, either. Professor Rashid Khalidi, a noted Hamas apologist at Columbia University, explains that UNRWA employs, "members of different political groups such as… Hamas and Islamic Jihad, without reference to their belonging to a specific group."
Moreover, according to Yoni Fighel, a former Israeli military governor in the Palestinian territories, UNRWA workers are permitted to openly affiliate with terrorist groups. He notes that, "as long as UNRWA employees are members of Fatah, Hamas, or PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], they are going to pursue the interests of their party within the framework of their job…Who's going to check up on them to see that they don't? UNRWA? They are UNRWA."
In other words, UNRWA sees Hamas and other terrorist groups as part of the Palestinian landscape, and therefore embraces these groups.
Teaching and Preaching Hamas Ideology
Since many UNRWA teachers are alumni of the UNRWA school system, they often perpetuate the vitriolic curriculum they were taught, vilifying Israel and the West. For example, Suheil al-Hindi, an UNRWA teachers' representative, openly applauded suicide bombings at a school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza in 2003. Instead of a condemnation, al-Hindi received a promotion and was subsequently elected to UNRWA's clerks union.
UNRWA teachers who publicly identify with radical groups have created a teachers' bloc that ensures the election of Hamas members and other individuals committed to Islamist ideologies. After using their classrooms as a place to refine their radical messages, these teachers gravitate to politics. As such, UNRWA's education system has become a springboard for Hamas leaders. For example, Said Sayyam, the Hamas minister of interior and civil affairs, was a teacher in UNRWA schools in Gaza from 1980 to 2003. He went on to become a member of UNRWA's Arab Employees Union, and headed the teachers sector committee.
Notable graduates of the UNRWA school system include former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, the former Hamas chief who attended UNRWA secondary school in Khan Younis and graduated top of his class.
UNRWA and Terrorism
UNRWA institutions have not just produced terrorist ideologues. They have also produced terrorist masterminds. According to Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, UNWRA has produced graduates like Ibrahim Maqadama, who "helped create the military structure of Hamas." Gold notes that, "at least 46 terrorist operatives were students in the UNRWA schools."
There have also been widespread reports of terrorism from UNRWA-supervised facilities, including sniper attacks from UNRWA-run schools, bomb and arms factories in UNRWA camps, the transport of terrorists to their target zones in UNRWA ambulances, and even UNRWA employees directly tied to terrorist attacks against civilians.
Nidal Abd al-Fattah Abdallah Nazzal, an ambulance driver for UNRWA from Kalqiliya in the West Bank, was arrested by Israeli security services in August 2002. Nidal admitted that he was a Hamas activist and that he had transported weapons and explosives to terrorists in his ambulance, taking advantage of the freedom of movement afforded to UNRWA vehicles by the Israelis.
Nahd Rashid Ahmad Atallah, a senior official of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip, was also arrested by Israeli security in August 2002. In his capacity as an UNRWA official, he provided support to families of wanted Fatah and PFLP terrorists. He used his UNRWA car to transport armed members of the "Popular Resistance Committees," a militant faction of the Fatah movement, to carry out attacks against Israeli troops at the Karni Crossing.
UNRWA also appears to be in the business of cultivating new terrorists. The New York Times exposed in 2000 that UNRWA allowed terrorist groups to use their schools as "summer camps" so that 25,000 Palestinian children could receive paramilitary training, including instructions on how to prepare Molotov cocktails and roadside bombs.
UNRWA does not appear eager to prevent this kind of activity. When the U.S. government's General Accounting Office (GAO) asked UNRWA whether it screens beneficiaries for ties with terrorists, UNRWA claimed that it couldn't because such a screening would endanger its staff. Similarly, when the houses of six Palestinian families on UNRWA's registry were destroyed during bomb-making activities, UNRWA concluded there was not enough evidence to deny them benefits under the terrorist exclusion law.
As the West searches for ways to weaken Hamas in Gaza, UNRWA should be an obvious target. UNRWA provides food, medicine, economic aid, jobs, radical education, political opportunities, and even logistical assistance to Hamas and other extremist groups. UNRWA's budget, which exceeds $365 million, is funded by many nations, but the United States and other Western nations are the largest contributors. Cutting off UNRWA's budget would be detrimental to Hamas in Gaza. It would also send an important message to the United Nations, which perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem and lends legitimacy to groups like Hamas through UNRWA's continued existence.
Asaf Romirowsky is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum and Manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.