The relief agency in Gaza, financed in part by the U.S., has become a patron of Palestinian grievance.
On Wednesday, as a truce held between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the U.N. General Assembly. “The senseless cycle of suffering” must end, he said, asking: “Do we have to continue like this: build, destroy, and build, and destroy?”
For answers, the secretary-general would do well to look at the U.N.’s own main agency in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, better known as Unrwa. Bankrolled chiefly by the United States and the European Commission, with headquarters split among Gaza, Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, the agency is one of the U.N.’s most perverse, destructive creations. In Gaza it essentially functions as Hamas’s handmaiden.
During the clashes of recent weeks as Israel sought to stop rocket attacks by Hamas and to destroy the organization’s terror tunnels, Unrwa has loomed large on the public stage—with a pronounced Palestinian tilt. Its commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, has publicly condemned Israel, accusing the Israelis of “serious violation of international law.” On Al Jazeera television, the agency’s spokesman, Christopher Gunness, has wept for the Palestinians.
Yet the U.N. representatives in Gaza helped cater the conflict and are already setting the table for the next round. Officially, Unrwa is a strictly humanitarian agency, providing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank, as well as Gaza, with “assistance and protection” in the form of schools, hospitals, construction, loans, jobs and other help. By the agency’s own account, in its 2014-15 budget “the core services UNRWA provides are comparable in nature and scope to those provided by a local or national government.”
But Gaza under Hamas is a place with only two basic industries: aid and terrorism. These are much entwined, and not solely because Hamas controls Unrwa’s staff unions in Gaza, where in 2012 a Hamas-affiliated slate swept 25 of 27 seats. In effect the U.N. group subsidizes Hamas. Among U.N. agencies in the Middle East, Unrwa is the largest employer, with a regular budget for 2014 of $731 million, and a total budget that, with emergency appeals, tops $1 billion.
The agency has roughly 30,000 staff on its payroll, almost all Palestinian. Some 12,500 work in Gaza, home to 1.2 million Unrwa-registered refugees, who account for about two-thirds of Gaza’s population. The U.N. agency’s welfare programs relieve Hamas of many of the costs of servicing the enclave it controls as its launchpad for terror.
With the agency handling household chores, Hamas—especially since its bloody takeover of Gaza in 2007, ousting the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah—has found the time and resources to amass rocket arsenals (Unrwa last month reported finding rockets stashed in three of its vacant schools), to bombard Israel (sometimes in close proximity to Unrwa premises), and to build miles of concrete-reinforced tunnels extending into Israel for terrorist attacks. Israel, in its counteroffensive, has been accused by the U.N. of deadly strikes on Unrwa schools serving as shelters.
How did it come to this? Created by the U.N. General Assembly in 1949, Unrwa began operations in 1950 as an emergency jobs and aid program for Palestinian refugees. It was supposed to be temporary but has been repeatedly renewed. The agency has now carried on for 64 years, vastly expanding its budget, programs and refugee rolls.
Unrwa is unusual among U.N. agencies in ways that render it especially unaccountable, even by U.N. standards. All other refugees world-wide fall under the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Only the Palestinians have their own dedicated U.N. refugee agency, offering special access to the perquisites of the U.N. logo, stage and fundraising.
Almost all other U.N. agencies report to an executive board, allowing at least some chance of functional oversight. Unrwa reports directly to the entire 193-member General Assembly, where responsibility is broadly dispersed and easily avoided. According to a paper in 2010 by the agency’s own chief of legal affairs, Lance Bartholomeusz, Unrwa enjoys the added flexibility of having no clearly defined mission: “its mandate is not conveniently stated in one place and must be derived from all other relevant resolutions and requests.”
Thus unencumbered, Unrwa has ensured its own survival by transforming itself into the patron of Palestinian grievance, conferring refugee status down the generations, an unusual practice. The agency’s website reports that since 1950 its roster of registered refugees has grown from an original 750,000 to 5.3 million—a sevenfold increase, all eligible for the Unrwa dole. For the Palestinians, this has been ruinous, fostering within an otherwise enterprising culture a crippling sense of entitlement and dependency.
The agency does face one hurdle: Its funding comes almost entirely from voluntary contributions. But hundreds of millions roll in every year from the U.S., which is the largest donor (contributing $294 million in 2013), followed by the European Commission ($216 million). According to State Department historical data, the U.S. since Unrwa’s inception has given the agency funds totaling $4.9 billion (closer to $7 billion in constant 2014 dollars).
In 2011 the agency opened an office in Washington run by two former U.S. government insiders: Matthew Reynolds, previously the State Department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, and Chris McGrath, previously a media-events director for Sen. Harry Reid. The job descriptions include representing the U.N. agency’s interests to the State Department and monitoring Congress on a daily basis to yield an “advocacy strategy dedicated to optimizing Unrwa’s relations with Congress.”
Thus U.S. tax dollars fund Unrwa officials now lobbying in Washington to obtain yet more money for an agency entwined with the rocket-launching, tunnel-digging rulers of Gaza. Mr. Reynolds, reached by phone this week, said he doesn’t answer questions from the media. Christopher Gunness, the agency spokesman, did not respond to repeated queries.
With this week’s truce between Israel and Hamas appearing to hold as the weekend neared, Unrwa is ready for what comes next. The organization has embarked on a $187 million flash appeal to rebuild Gaza. Thus will Hamas be spared the expense of cleaning up after the warfare it provoked.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.