In responding with pique to our piece on the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, Matthew Reynolds deflects attention from our real proposal—one that would put the organization at least partially out of business.
Reynolds' criticism must be situated properly. Having found the distance from New York to Washington too great, UNRWA opened an office in the capital in 2011. As UNRWA's representative in Washington, Reynold’s job is to lobby UNRWA’s largest donor, the United States.
For this reason, he seizes upon various observations of ours that he believes are “canards” for the sake of “cheap political shots.” For example, he is outraged that we observed that UNRWA’s union in Gaza is dominated by Hamas members, who won 25 out of 27 seats in a 2012 election. As one unnamed former UNRWA staff member put it at the time, “For the moment, Hamas and UNRWA seem to have an agreement that UNRWA may continue to function in Gaza so long as it does not engage in actions that significantly contradict Hamas' world view.” This would appear to support our assertion that “UNRWA is effectively a branch of Hamas” and belie Reynolds’ claim of UNRWA’s “policy of strict neutrality.”
We observed that “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).” Reynolds calls this "a very extreme accusation made without any substantiation." He might take up the matter with former UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen, who in 2004 stated, “Oh, I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.” (This was before Hamas took over Gaza and its ruling institutions.)
As for Reynolds’ mention of UNRWA’s vetting of employees, this is done under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267, a terrorist screening list meant to ensure that no known members of Al Qaeda join the organization. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report notes that the "list does not include Hamas, Hezbollah, or most other militant groups that operate in UNRWA’s surroundings…. Nevertheless, UNRWA officials did say that if notified by U.S. officials of potential matches, they would 'use the information as a trigger to conduct their own investigation.'"
Excluding Al Qaeda members from UNRWA is a lesser concern than say, excluding members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, like UNRWA school headmaster and PIJ rocket maker Awad al-Qiq, killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2008, or other local Islamists who might fill out an UNRWA job application in Gaza.
Regarding our allegation that some relief supplies brought into Gaza are ending up in Hamas, Reynolds seizes upon a photo used in a news item we linked to and fabricates an accusation from us, about UNRWA cement bags found in Hamas’ tunnels. Alas, we do not mention cement bags (or flour bags) in our piece.
He does so to divert attention from several things, above all the question of what happened to all the cement UNRWA imported into Gaza. Cement, like money, is fungible. Given the undeniable immensity of Hamas’ underground tunnel infrastructure, it behooves UNRWA to demonstrate what became of the cement it imported above ground.
Reynolds protests our assertion that Hamas supporters “shape the curriculum” and retorts “the curriculum of the host country and in the specific case of Gaza we use the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum.” But in the link we cited no less an authority than Motesem Al Minawi, spokesman for the Education Ministry in Gaza—which is run by Hamas—who complained that in the PA’s curriculum, “There is a tremendous focus on the peaceful resistance as the only tool to achieve freedom and independence.”
Indeed, another report quotes that Al Minawi complained precisely that “UNRWA is acting like a state within a state… It must understand the limits of its authority; that it is bound by the curriculum taught in its areas of activity.” Are we then to believe that UNRWA’s teachers, who belong to the Hamas-run union, do not “shape” the curriculum to conform to what UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness has called “local values”?
Perhaps because it would put him out of work, Reynolds never does address our substantive proposal: that Western donors should reprogram monies from UNRWA and toward the Palestinian Authority, in order to strengthen the latter in Gaza.
In 2013, the U.S. gave UNRWA more than $294 million and the European Commission gave more than $216 million. This money is power; reluctantly we conclude it should be given to the PA rather than to UNRWA.
We do so fully acknowledging that the PA is corrupt. We should add that it differs ideologically from Hamas mostly in the extent of Islamist rhetoric. It too believes, as Adli Sadeq, the PLO ambassador to India, recently put it, “We are protecting all humans, and are on the first line of defense in the battle of humanity against the dogs.”
In the end, Reynolds tips his hand: “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.”
Like all welfare organizations, UNRWA wishes “to provide” endlessly and to a unique population whose “refugee” status it has independently expanded. In doing so it insinuates itself into every level of Palestinian society and discourse, competes with the PA for international funds, and expands its welfare and legal mandates on its own authority.
Our proposal is to begin the long, painful and overdue process of shifting money away from UNRWA to the putative Palestinian state. Let “Palestine”—a “non-member observer state” in United Nations parlance—take responsibility for its own people. Let the PA show to the people of Gaza that it can “provide.” We propose to give them the money, the responsibility, and the glory.
This, perhaps, is what UNRWA cannot abide.
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.