Twisted Motives: UNRWA’s Role in Perpetuating Conflict

By: - July 6, 2018

Much can be said about the heart of a volunteer.

There is something unique about individuals who give selflessly from a motivation that transcends material gain. These are people who will run toward the danger everyone else is running from. They will burn the midnight oil, unselfishly toiling away for a cause they see as more important than themselves. Often, such motivated individuals will rally together, to create a structured organization to carry out their important work on a larger scale and with more efficiency. We call these groups non-profit organizations, or NPOs.

Labeling an enterprise as an NPO is an important testament to the nature of the organization, and hopefully to the character of the people working for it. Being an NPO means that the group is not directly participating in a market economy. Therefore, the managers do not think in the same terms as profit-oriented corporations. Ideas like “expansion” and “growth projection” are not the same for NPOs as they are among for-profit entities . The organizations exist to address a specific problem. A problem that weighs heavily on the collective consciousness of a society or even the whole world. The goal is to address that problem. This means that NPOs strive for the exact opposite of businesses. Whereas profit seeking groups want to expand the demand for their products or services, NPOs ultimately want to eliminate the need of their own existence.

Of course “non-profit” does not mean these organizations don’t deal with money. Everyone needs to pay the bills.

But because NPOs are not in the business of, well, doing business…they need to rely on generosity to keep existing. When an NPO starts to grow in the activities, there comes a point when the community baking sales no longer cut it. They must appeal to governments. That, of course, is where the big money is. It is at this stage that NPOs develop a powerful global image, often a politicized one. In order to keep up their international support, NPOs need to promote their activities on a grand scale. Often they must align themselves with other interests and forge cooperative relationships with other factions.

This should not be seen as a sweeping critique of not-for-profit groups. NPOs play an important role in societies, including developed ones. Organizations ranging from the Red Cross to the Salvation Army provide vital necessities to people in need all over the world. The point, rather, is that individuals should exercise some prudence when assessing the nobility of an NPO and its activities.

Despite the ease of vilifying big businesses as greedy, money-hounding, and heartless, there is a bit more simplicity to understanding how and why such organizations function. Their end-game is their bottom line. This is what is ultimately driving them. Yes, corporations can do plenty evil in the pursuit of profit and businesses can—and often are—tied to political groups that can advance their interests. But at the end of the day the agendas are not hidden. Not so in the world of non-profit. The consequences of an NPO’s activities can produce a virtual web of stakeholders and interest groups, all with their own set of personal and group motivations. This is especially true when the NPO is striving to address to a highly politicized and complex geopolitical issue.

Case in point: the Middle East conflict.

On 25 June, the United Nations held a conference with the goal of procuring emergency aid from member states for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). According the group’s director, Pierre Krahenbuhl, the organization is struggling to provide basic necessities and services including sanitation and medical care.

UNRWA’s cash shortage is the direct result of President Trump’s decision in January to substantially cut American funding to the organization. The United States has been the largest donor to UNRWA, footing a third of the total UNRWA budget annually. Trump made the decision to slash the allotment to UNRWA from almost $400 million to just above $60 million.

Al Jazeera‘s UN correspondent James Bays, reporting from New York, said member states have for months been trying to fill UNRWA’s budget gap. “It appears there are new funds coming from the European Union, from Mexico, from Sweden and from Belgium—and other countries like the UK, are bringing forward some of their funding,” Bays said. “The total amounts though are nowhere near the shortfall of $250m, and the UN is still desperately looking for further funding,” he added.

According to director Krahenbuhl, Trump’s decision has landed UNRWA in it’s biggest crisis since its creation in 1949.

A Dangerous Bias

At the time of the decision to decrease US funding, Trump offered the rationale for his decision. In a series of tweets, Trump had said: “… We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect… With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

While The Donald has a way of oversimplifying things in his social media policy announcements, the president’s comments did underscore an unfortunate and deeply disturbing reality regarding the Middle East peace process and UNRWA’s role in the seven decade-long saga.

First, its important to understand that UNRWA is a very special organization. The UN deals with all of the world’s refugee crises through its Refugee Agency and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the immediate aftermath of World War II, this single body has overseen the care and resettlement of 50 million refugees worldwide. There is one national group, just one, that is not under the auspices of the UNHCR, and that is the Palestinian people.

Why does a separate institution exist to provide for these refugees?

The answer lies in the unique mandate of UNRWA and how it differs from the more general UNHCR. While the UNHCR is meant to find permanent long-term solutions for refugees, UNRWA was designed to provide for the needs of Palestinians in their limbo, homeland-less state indefinitely.

The nature of UNRWA’s mandate has made them a natural rallying point for the most extreme elements from the Palestinian people, individuals who have no interest in finding a peaceful and permanent solution to the plight of their people. Very bad actors have been attracted to UNRWA’s ranks, and some very dysfunctional practices have been fostered within the organization.

UNRWA has hired a slew of recognized terrorists to work for them over the years. Some more notable examples have been Said Siyam, interior minister in the Hamas government who taught at UNRWA schools until being killed during the 2008 Gaza War. More recently, Hamas official Dr. Suhail Ahmed Hassan al-Hindi worked as the principle of an UNRWA boys school and operated as the head of the group’s staff union until being elected to a higher position in the Hamas bureaucracy. Awad al-Keek was both the chief weapons engineer of Islamic Jihad and a headmaster at an UNRWA school. The list goes on:

Periodically, the West wakes up in shock when discovering that the money it so generously lays out for UNRWA is used to fund indoctrinating education. Just last year, British media reported the “fury” of UK citizens upon discovering that many of the UNRWA schools it funds with tens of millions of dollars a year, are named after known terrorists. The schools teachers openly admit to talking to pupils about martyrs and encouraging them to emulate them. Mock executions of Israeli soldiers being performed as plays are not rare. For a unique insider view of classroom incitement in UNRWA education facilities, the reader is directed here:

In summary, the “relief works” of UNRWA today simply form the institutional infrastructure for indoctrinating a new generation of extremists, while simultaneously perpetuating the plight for millions of Palestinians.

Today, some 59 Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan still exist. This is a very good question to inquire of an UNRWA supporter: why is it that after decades of existence, and billions of dollars in international aid, have these camps not been dismantled and the residents permanently resettled? Why is it that the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original refugees of 1948 are still living in these UNRWA- facilitated areas? There are only two possible responses to this question. The less damning one is simply incompetence. The United Nations has not been capable of effectively reestablishing the lives of the people it purports to serve. Even accepting this answer would present a reason to cut funding from the group. Why continue pumping exorbitant sums into an organization that can’t solve the one problem it was created to address?

But in light of the above information, the more malicious explanation seems to be the correct one. As an organization, UNRWA does not want to see the resettlement of the millions of Palestinians under its “care.” This is for a very simple reason: if refugees are resettled it would negate the reason for UNRWA to exist. In a similar vein, the extremists that fill the rank-and-file of UNRWA’s employee body would lose a valuable propaganda weapon in vilifying the Israeli enemy if their people found a permanent home. Even worse, they would lose the institutions and framework they currently use to teach violence and hate that fuels the current conflict.

(Credit: Facebook/UNRWA)

The Trump administration was correct in identifying UNRWA as a waste of money and an obstacle to peace seven months ago. The organization is now beginning to feel the heat. Hopefully the shake-up of the status quo will force UNRWA and indeed the Palestinian Authority to reassess the way they’re doing business. It is the only optimistic prospect for the millions of Palestinians that have been used as pawns by their own leaders, for a very long time.