When Hamas fires its last rocket and Israel drops its last bomb, the extent of Gaza’s devastation will become clear. An early estimate is that some $5 billion will be necessary to rebuild residences and infrastructure destroyed in the recent conflict. The first step is to take United Nations Relief and Works Agency out of the equation.
UNRWA, the U.N.’s 65-year-old, internationally funded welfare organization for Palestinians, should be commended for providing much needed shelter and aid to displaced Gazans during the crisis. But given several revelations during the current conflict between Hamas and Israel, UNRWA should have no role in any negotiated arrangement regarding Gaza’s reconstruction.
On three occasions rockets were found in UNRWA schools, closed for the summer, and at least once they were returned to Hamas. On another occasion, the UNRWA accused Israel of targeting civilians sheltering in a school when in fact those deaths were caused by a Hamas rocket that fell short. And on another occasion it accused Israel of targeting a shelter and civilians when in reality terrorists outside the facility were hit and civilian bodies possibly planted at the scene.
UNRWA has condemned the rockets found in its schools, but it has not condemned Hamas’ firing rockets from in and around its facilities, or any other locations such as residential areas, hospital parking lots, and hotels. All these have now been documented, often reluctantly, by journalists who have left Gaza, who have also made it clear that they were subject to Hamas surveillance, harassment and intimidation. Instead, UNRWA and its spokesman Chris Gunness have tweeted accusations, voiced hollow defenses, and cried on television.
UNRWA’s many responsibilities should be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, as a means of strengthening the PA practically, politically, and in the eyes of Gaza’s residents. UNRWA employees should be made PA employees and international funds redirected to support its programs. This would be one of the timeliest means of rebuilding the PA in a region where it has been weakest, Gaza, and a way to begin the long overdue process of dismantling UNRWA.
This recommendation has its flaws. The PA is monumentally corrupt while UNRWA is not (although recent revelations regarding diversions of building supplies provided by the U.N. and overseen by UNRWA to Hamas have begun to change that image). There must be the expectation that Western funds and supplies will go missing, only to end up in the bank accounts and businesses of PA leaders and their families. But if at long last international donors become serious about cracking down on PA corruption, and Gazans demanded accountability from their government, there is at least the chance for good governance to emerge.
As it is, UNRWA is effectively a branch of Hamas. The overwhelming majority of its employees in Gaza belong to the Hamas-linked trade union. An unknown number of employees are actual Hamas fighters (or at least know UNRWA employees with keys to the schools so that rockets can be stored in classrooms over the summer). The curriculum taught in UNRWA schools is shaped by Hamas, which earlier this year rejected textbooks that failed to tout “armed resistance” as too “peaceful.” Gaza cannot be rebuilt at western expense only to return to this perverse status quo.
Dismantling UNRWA requires the approval of the United Nations General Assembly, making it unlikely. But if donor countries were to reprogram their funds, first by demanding that the PA take over UNRWA’s employees and responsibilities, the effect would be the same. In 2010, Canada shifted its contributions away from UNRWA, sending a strong message about the organization. And in Gaza allegiances are based in the first place on who pays the bills. Better this be the PA with Western help than Hamas with Qatari help. Adding UNRWA’s 13,000 employees in Gaza to the PA’s roster would be a boost.
Clear and forthright diplomatic pressure, led by the U.S., will be required to get European donors in line. For decades, these donors have been content to pay UNRWA’s increasing bills for its ever-expanding mandates. The Gaza reconstruction mission, however, will be so vast that it will further tax overstretched donors. Even U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has stated, "We will build again but this must be the last time—to rebuild.” There is thus a unique opportunity, perhaps the last, to help Palestinians stand on their own.
UNRWA has already issued an “emergency appeal” for Gaza, as it does regularly whether there is a mundane budgetary shortfall or a conflict-induced crisis. It has also launched one of its regular PR campaigns, both internationally and in Washington, where it maintains an office specifically to lobby the U.S. government. But the pleadings of its small number of international employees, like Gunness, cannot disguise the fact that it has been a completely Palestinian organization for decades. Why not take the next step and make it a real Palestinian organization?
That will require defunding UNRWA—and only then can the Palestinian Authority create a viable state that includes Gaza.
Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. They are co-authors of the book Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.