It is a very serious charge to accuse the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Palestine of supporting terrorism and one that Alexander Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky made without a scintilla of factual documentation in their recent opinion piece, "Stop Giving Money to the U.N.’s Relief Agency for Palestinians."
These two critics have misled the public apparently in hopes of scoring a cheap political shot against a humanitarian agency toiling in one of the most dangerous areas of the world. Despite the extreme danger—eleven of my colleagues have already been killed—UNRWA staff bravely continue to come to work every day to help those civilians most in need. Without their herculean efforts, civil society in Gaza would have already collapsed as UNRWA overwhelmingly provides safe shelter, food, drinking water, health care and sanitation to over a million civilians traumatized by this conflict.
While there is insufficient space here to address all of the faulty allegations levied by these critics, it is necessary to address a few of the most egregious as a means to expose the sheer lack of credibility in the charges levied against UNRWA.
The authors accuse the United Nations directly and the U.S. government indirectly (as the U.S. government is the single largest benefactor of UNRWA) of supporting terrorism when they proclaim, “UNRWA is effectively a branch of Hamas,” and that UNRWA “employees are actual Hamas fighters”—a very extreme accusation made without any substantiation. These dedicated UNRWA teachers, doctors, nurses and humanitarian aid workers are subject to thorough vetting and required to abide by strict United Nations non-political standards at all times with serious consequences—including dismissal—for any infraction. Not surprisingly, UNRWA employees appreciate and strongly support this policy of strict neutrality.
In addition, given the frequent and thorough monitoring of UNRWA’s operations, programs and staff by the U.S., Israeli and various European governments, it defies logic that the U.S. government—including a wide and distinguished range of pro-Israel Members of Congress—and even the government of Israel itself would continue to support UNRWA if any of these claims alleging support for terrorism could be even remotely substantiated.
The authors also allege that humanitarian supplies brought into Gaza by UNRWA are being diverted to the benefit of Hamas. Another canard. The “evidence” cited is a reference to a photo of an “UNRWA cement bag” found by a tunnel in Gaza which they claim proves UNRWA cement was used in tunnel-making. But, there are no such things as “UNRWA cement bags.” Even a cursory review of the photo shows a used and discarded sack that had once contained “wheat flour,” as clearly stenciled on it in plain English. Due to the blockade of Gaza, UNRWA distributes food, including wheat flour used to make bread, to over 800,000 people meaning there are literally millions of discarded wheat flour bags scattered across Gaza. UNRWA cannot control their subsequent use any more than McDonald's can control the later use of its paper bags once their customers leave the drive-through.
The authors claim “the curriculum taught in UNRWA schools is shaped by Hamas.” Yet, UNRWA uses—as the U.N. does in similar situations all over the world—the curriculum of the host country and in the specific case of Gaza we use the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum. This same PA curriculum, which has been reviewed and subsidized by the U.S. government, is also used in the schools run by Israel in East Jerusalem. Further, we supplement the curriculum in Gaza with our own classes on human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance to instill these values in the students in our schools.
These critics also attack UNRWA for supposedly accusing Israel of “targeting” civilians in Gaza, including women and children who have been tragically killed while seeking the relative safety of U.N. schools. UNRWA has never made such an accusation. UNRWA has and will continue to point out that international law requires principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution to be taken into account by all parties to a conflict to reduce civilian casualties. We do not believe that has happened to the extent it should have during this conflict.
With very generous and much appreciated contributions from the American people, UNRWA is able to provide basic humanitarian services to some five million registered Palestine refugees not only in Gaza but also in Lebanon, war-torn Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Defunding and eliminating UNRWA will not make these refugees disappear—it will only condemn them to further anguish and increase instability in an already volatile region.
Matthew Reynolds is the UNRWA Representative in the United States and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State.