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The Campaign to Abolish UNRWA
The Campaign to Abolish UNRWA
The recent defunding of the aid agency is part of a longstanding effort to extinguish Palestinian refugees’ dreams of return.
Peter Beinart

THE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY (UNRWA), which has provided education, health care, and other essential services to Palestinian refugees since 1949, could soon disappear. In recent weeks, the United States and at least 18 other countries have suspended aid to the agency, which operates in the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, serving more than five million people. The House and Senate are both considering legislation to prevent the US—which is UNRWA’s largest donor—from ever resuming that funding. UNRWA officials have said that if funding is not restored, the organization will likely halt operations as early as the end of this month.

The current effort to abolish UNRWA dates from late January, when Israel alleged that 12 of the agency’s staff members took part in the October 7th massacre, and that roughly 1200 employees—10% of UNRWA’s workforce in Gaza—have ties to Hamas or other militant groups. But Israel and its supporters in the US have been seeking to undermine the agency for at least a decade. In 2018, when leaked emails revealed that then-President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was attempting to “disrupt UNRWA” because the agency “perpetuates a status quo” and “is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,” a number of mainstream Jewish groups praised Kushner’s efforts. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations declared that UNRWA “is not the answer” to Palestinians’ humanitarian needs. (The Trump administration later cut off US aid to UNRWA; Joe Biden restored the funding soon after entering office.) In 2021, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, urged that “this UN agency for so-called ‘refugees’ should not exist in its current format.”

This longstanding campaign against UNRWA reflects a deeper pattern in Israeli political discourse: an inclination to frame Palestinians not as a people with their own political opinions and aspirations, but as marionettes operated by someone else. For more than 40 years, no one has exemplified this tendency better than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even before he sought elected office, in a 1982 interview with the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, he referred to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the “chief proxy” of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell but the PLO did not, Netanyahu pivoted to calling the PLO a tool of hostile Arab regimes, describing it in his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, as a “Pan-Arab Trojan horse.” Extending that logic in 2018, he argued that peace with Arab governments would render the Palestinian problem trivial. “Normalize relations with the 99 percent” of the Arabs, he explained, “and you’ll eventually get peace with the one percent.” Today, Netanyahu regularly calls Hamas an “Iranian proxy,” even though Hamas defied Tehran by supporting the rebellion against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. In his 2018 biography of the prime minister, Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer writes that “Netanyahu has always maintained that the Palestinian issue is a diversion, not a central problem in the region.”

UNRWA is yet another bogeyman that allows Netanyahu and his supporters to imagine that Israel’s problems with the Palestinians primarily stem not from Palestinians’ own responses to Israeli oppression, but from some outside force. Israeli leaders and their allies abroad level two main charges against UNRWA. The first is that it foments violent resistance among Palestinians; the second is that it encourages their dreams of return to their native lands. In both cases, Netanyahu and his ilk get the causality backwards, blaming UNRWA for aspects of Palestinian politics that stem from the Palestinians’ fundamental status as refugees—the very dispossession that UNRWA exists to address.

NETANYAHU CLAIMS that because UNRWA has been infiltrated by Hamas, getting rid of the organization and handing its functions over to “other UN agencies and other aid agencies” will make Israel safer. But even if Israel’s allegations against UNRWA are true—which is hard to ascertain, because few if any journalists have seen the evidence—it’s not clear why replacing UNRWA would improve Israeli security. Any aid agency working in Gaza would draw most of its staff from Gaza’s inhabitants, as UNRWA does. That means hiring from a population composed largely of families who were expelled, or fled in fear, from what is now Israel in 1948, in what Palestinians call the Nakba. Gaza’s Palestinians have been trying to return—sometimes violently and sometimes nonviolently—ever since. To prevent that, Israel has been invading and bombarding Gaza since the 1950s. It has occupied the Strip since 1967, and after withdrawing military and settlements in 2005, has held the region under blockade since 2007, with some assistance from Egypt, creating what Human Rights Watch calls “an open-air prison.” Since October 7th, Israel has killed close to 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza and displaced 90% from their homes. Given the amount of violence Israel has inflicted upon Palestinians in Gaza, it’s hardly surprising that many of the Strip’s inhabitants believe Palestinians have the right to employ violence themselves. That doesn’t justify Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. But it does mean there is little reason to believe that a successor agency would prove any more effective at insulating its workforce from armed groups than UNRWA has been.

This problem isn’t unique to Gaza. As academics have noted, refugees often support armed resistance against the states that displaced them. And as New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley recently acknowledged, “any experienced aid worker will tell you that it’s a constant challenge to maintain independence from any armed group or rebel group, be it in South Sudan or northern Sri Lanka.” UNRWA has practices in place to address this problem. According to UNRWA’s Washington director, William Deere, the agency gives Israel the names, employee numbers, and functions of all its employees in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank annually, and twice a year screens them against the UN Security Council sanctions list. Since Israel leveled its charges, UNRWA has fired nine of the 12 employees accused of participating in the October 7th attacks even without seeing evidence to support the allegations (two are dead and one is still being identified), and the UN has launched two investigations into the specific allegations and into UNRWA’s broader conduct, which may produce recommendations for further security measures. Given all this, there is little reason to believe that a successor agency would prove any more effective at insulating its workforce from armed groups than UNRWA has been. In fact, since no other agency has the capacity to provide the services that UNRWA provides, replacing it would exacerbate the already nightmarish humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and thus likely increase levels of radicalization.

Netanyahu and his allies’ other central claim against UNRWA is that it stokes Palestinian dreams of refugee return, which Israel has been trying to quash for decades. True to form, Netanyahu has always located the problem not primarily among the Palestinians themselves but among the external actors who allegedly control them. In A Durable Peace, he bemoans the “consistent refusal of Arab leaders to solve this problem” and criticizes them for having “manipulated the refugee issue to create reasons for world censure of Israel.” More recently, perhaps because Israel’s relations with key Arab governments have improved, Netanyahu has redirected his ire toward UNRWA. In 2018, he called for abolishing the agency because it “perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.” He revived that call late last month when he accused the agency of having a “desire to keep alive the Palestinian refugee issue.”

But as with infiltration by armed groups, Netanyahu has the issue backwards. UNRWA doesn’t make Palestinian refugees want to return; it’s because Palestinian refugees want to return, and are entitled to do so under international law, that UNRWA exists. Abolishing it would not strip Palestinians of their right to return, which derives not from UNRWA, but from United Nations Resolution 194, which declared in 1948 that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” and which has been reaffirmed by the United Nations more than 100 times. It would not stop Palestinians from passing refugee status on to their children since, as the United Nations explains, “Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found.” That principle governs not just UNRWA but also the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the body most often proposed as UNRWA’s replacement, which oversees multiple generations of refugees from Afghanistan to Somalia to Tibet. Although Israel’s supporters imagine that transferring Palestinian refugees to UNHCR’s supervision would mean their resettlement in neighboring countries, that’s extremely rare. UNHCR refugees are far more likely to return to the country from which they fled or were expelled—exactly the outcome that Netanyahu and his supporters seek to prevent.

But beyond all this, abolishing UNRWA would not extinguish the Palestinian yearning to return because that yearning is central to what it means to be Palestinian. In the words of Palestinian academic Yusuf Jabarin, “Palestinian society was totally defeated in a territorial sense; not one square centimeter remained. The only oppositional space it had left was virtual—the collective memory.” Palestinians nurture that collective memory in many ways. Political scientist Leila Khalili has noted that Palestinians sometimes name their daughters after lost villages. The Palestinian archivist Tarek Bakri describes how “any Palestinian who visits his village or his land for the first time, they take with them soil.” In March 2018—70 years after the Nakba—tens of thousands of Palestinians began marching every Friday to Gaza’s border with Israel in the Great March of Return, and kept marching for more than a year even as Israeli sharpshooters and drone operators killed more than 200 people and injured more than 36,000. UNRWA didn’t make Palestinians do this. On the contrary, as scholar Jalal Al Husseini has detailed, Palestinians have repeatedly resisted UNRWA initiatives that they saw as aimed at resettling them in their host countries, and have criticized the agency for being insufficiently committed to their return.

The failure of Israeli and American Jewish leaders to grasp this yearning is deeply ironic. They have spent decades arguing that Palestinians would abandon their desire to return, disown their national identity, and become Lebanese, Syrian, or Canadian if only Arab governments or UNRWA would stop encouraging them to return home. But Israel’s own Declaration of Independence boasts that “after being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it.” The yearning for national return—no matter how much time passes or how much hardship is endured—is central to Zionism itself.

With his allies in Washington, Netanyahu may in the coming months succeed in crippling or even abolishing UNRWA. If he does, more Palestinians will die from their injuries, exposure, illness, or starvation, because no aid agency can adequately replace it. As Jan Egland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, recently explained, “All of us combined, other groups, are not even close to being what UNRWA is for the people of Gaza.” But even if Netanyahu and his allies succeed in destroying UNRWA, they will make little headway in their longstanding goal of destroying Palestinians’ desire to reconstitute themselves as a nation on their ancestral land, because that desire has never required the permission of others.