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Double agency: Why Israel wants to expel controversial UN Middle East organization from Gaza

The Israeli government has devised a plan to expel the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) from the Gaza Strip, a move viewed in the Jewish state as a way of dealing with a sympathizer, if not an accomplice, of Hamas. Israelis indeed have grounds to mistrust this UN agency, which has long been surrounded by an aura of controversy. The main argument of critics is that UNRWA should be involved in integrating Palestinians into new societies rather than perpetuating decades of segregation practices in Arab countries, which are in no hurry to grant citizenship to the descendants of refugees born on their territories.


The windows of the interrogation room in the Hamas migration office in Gaza overlook the local premises of UNRWA. When the Hamas interrogator is momentarily distracted, whether for a smoke break or for a scroll through the news feed on his phone, one glance through these windows to see a charming mural featuring smiling children, flowers, and kittens, all painted on the high concrete fence surrounding the UNRWA office. Above the pretty pictures looms a tangle of barbed wire, and on the armored metal gates granting approved visitors access to the other side of the fence, a warning is posted that carrying weapons inside is prohibited.

In Gaza, the juxtaposition of such diverse elements — childlike images and the fortress-like wall on which they are drawn — does not create dissonance. It is indeed a very unique territory, governed by its own rules, influenced both by Hamas and UNRWA.

Before the Hamas interrogator finishes his cigarette and resumes questioning, I manage to notice a large white SUV with the letters UN on the side entering the UNRWA gates. Such vehicles are typically associated with UN peacekeepers, but in Gaza, especially given my circumstances, there is no expectation of assistance from them. Hamas migration service personnel found a childhood photo of my daughter on social media, revealing a bracelet with the inscription “Israel” on her wrist.

For me, it's just an innocent gift from relatives who went on vacation to the Dead Sea, but for Hamas, this bracelet qualifies as evidence of what, at least by their standards, constitutes a heinous crime: sympathy towards the Jewish state. In a city accessible only through a checkpoint, where a Hamas official at the border with Israel must, during the screening process, visually determine whether you are Jewish, philosemitism is deemed unacceptable.

Hamas came for me early in the morning. Three people barged into the hotel room where I had checked in just the day before, demanding that I accompany them to the migration office. I had already been there just before arriving at the hotel, spending several hours processing all the necessary paperwork for my stay in Gaza. It seemed I had passed all the checks — I even received an official Hamas government document granting temporary residence in the Gaza Strip. However, some eager official decided to dig into my social media after work and found what he considered compromising photos.

And here I am, sitting in a smoke-filled room on the second floor of the migration office, facing an unshaven Hamas member who has been asking me the same questions for hours: about my daughter, about myself, about our hypothetical acquaintances in Israel, and about whether the Jews have recruited me to spy in Gaza.

The interrogation ends abruptly. Whether the Hamas official grew tired of dealing with me or his workday simply ended, I do not know. All I can say for sure is that at a certain moment he stands up from the table and ceremonially announces that I am free to go. He escorts me downstairs from the interrogation room, through the reception on the first floor — where I had filled out paperwork the day before — and leads me outside.

I gaze at the fence surrounding the UNRWA office and think that I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life. Mere minutes ago I did not know if I was facing execution, confinement in an underground bunker, or some other form of elaborate Middle Eastern torture. Now all of that is over. I am alive, free, and staring at this fence, with its peeling, slightly crooked drawings and am repeatedly reading the letters UNRWA on the gates as if it were a protective incantation warding off absurdist claims from Hamas.

But for many who were fortunate enough never to have found themselves in a situation like mine, UNRWA is not a tongue-twisting magical incantation but an initialism representing a cumbersome bureaucratic organization with an extremely ambiguous reputation.

The agency was established in 1949, seventy years before my adventures in the migration offices of Gaza. By that time, the first war in Israel's modern history — a war with neighboring states that refused to recognize its right to exist — had ended. Israel emerged victorious, but the situation in the Middle East was far from calm.

One of the main problems arising from this war was the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who left their homes — whether voluntarily or under the gun of the Israeli military — and settled in neighboring countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Others came under the jurisdiction of Arab states only after settling in the territories designated for Palestinians: the West Bank of the Jordan River, which fell under Jordanian occupation, and the Gaza Strip, where Egyptian administration was established following the war. According to UN estimates, the refugees numbered more than 700,000, and Middle Eastern governments that were just beginning to build their own institutions of statehood after centuries of dependence on colonial powers proved incapable of accommodating, feeding, and employing such an enormous influx of migrants.

Middle Eastern governments that were just beginning to develop their own institutions of statehood after centuries of dependence on colonial powers proved incapable of accommodating, feeding, and employing 700,000 refugees.

Arab countries that hosted refugees engaged in negotiations with Israel and Western nations for some time regarding the resettlement of Palestinians on their territory. There was talk of granting them citizenship in exchange for territorial concessions and financial aid, but the parties never reached any agreement.

The return of Palestinians to their homes in areas under Israeli control was hindered by the ongoing formal state of war between the Jewish state and its neighbors, a situation that persisted even after Israel's victory in 1948. Israelis viewed the refugees as a potential fifth column of Arab armies, which still hadn't forsworn their intention to destroy Israel, Israel thus opposed Palestinian Arabs’ repatriation.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of people found themselves living in tents and other temporary shelters — with no clear prospects of ever moving up in the world. However, the United Nations, then a newly created organization, came to their aid. It took responsibility for Palestinian refugees and established a special body for this purpose — the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

The agency's operational principle is quite simple: UN member states allocate funds from their budgets in order to support the humanitarian initiative’s activities, and UNRWA uses this money to provide refugees with shelter, food, medical services, and employment opportunities. Interestingly, one of the first issues the agency had to address was defining the concept of a Palestinian “refugee.” In 1948, international still defined a refugee to be individuals who had been forced by threats to their lives or health to leave the country of which they were a citizen. However, none of the Arabs who left Israel in 1948 were its citizens.

To provide assistance to these people, officials developed a new definition applicable only to Palestinians. It states that a Palestinian refugee is anyone who resided in the territory of British-mandated Palestine for at least two years before the start of the 1948 war and who, as a result of that war, lost their home, job, or means of livelihood, and was thereby compelled to resettle in countries or territories where UNRWA operates — Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, unlike “ordinary” refugees, whose children born in other countries are no longer considered refugees, Palestinians who left their home pass on this status to their descendants. As a result, of the approximately 6 million Palestinians UNRWA recognizes as refugees today, only 10,000–15,000 are estimated to be among those who were forced from their homes in 1948.

UNRWA currently recognizes about 6 million Palestinian refugees, of whom only 10–15 thousand are estimated to be those who left their homes in 1948

It is also important to note that, after the establishment of Israel, around 900,000 Jews who were then living in Iran and various Arab and Islamic states were forced to leave their homes and flee abroad due to persecution. Some of these found refuge in the United States, Canada, and Europe, but the majority — about 650,000 — relocated to Israel, where they settled without the assistance of the UN or its agencies, relying solely on the help of the Israeli government and Jewish foundations.

Advocates of the broad interpretation of the term “Palestinian refugee” insist that the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of the original refugees are deprived of many civil rights in the countries where they reside. Without assistance from UNRWA, they argue, these people would face incredibly bleak existences. There is indeed a basis for this point of view, as most Arab countries that hosted Palestinians after 1948 do not recognize them or their descendants as citizens.

Initially, there was an ideological explanation for this: the notion that these people should drive out Jews and return to their homes. Granting them citizenship, the argument went, would lead to their assimilation among the local population, diminishing the intensity of support for — or even removing the purpose of — any future war against Israel. Over the years, with the normalization of Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan and the descent of Lebanon and Syria into the abyss of their internal problems, which rendered the war with the Jewish state irrelevant, this ideological justification essentially lost its meaning. However, the practice of restricting the rights of Palestinians and treating them as outsiders, even those born and raised in their new homeland, has not disappeared.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that instead of facilitating the segregation practices of Arab countries and sustaining hope among generations of refugees of a return to their ancestral homes, UNRWA should focus on the integration of Palestinians into the societies where they live. They believe the agency should work with both the Palestinians and the governments of the host countries and territories to enable these people to become fully fledged citizens of the polities where they reside.

And this is probably the most benign criticism directed at UNRWA. The agency, with a budget of over one billion dollars in 2022, has also been accused of lacking transparency in its spending practices. Former UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl faced allegations that some donor money was allocated not to schools and hospitals for refugees, but instead for Krähenbühl’s first-class travels around the world in the company of a girlfriend.

The agency, with a budget of over one billion dollars in 2022, has been accused of lacking transparency in its spending practices

Adding a twist to this story, Krähenbühl also appointed his girlfriend to an advisory position within UNRWA, meaning that she not only accompanied him on travels, but also received a salary for her role. Interestingly, the United Nations attempted to cover up this entire story; it only became public knowledge after someone from the organization leaked an internal report on the state of affairs within the Middle East agency to journalists.

Pierre Krähenbühl
Pierre Krähenbühl

Krähenbühl, embroiled in scandal, was one of the few foreigners working at UNRWA. The vast majority of the agency's 30,000 employees are Palestinian refugees, most of them two or even three generations removed from the original 1948 exodus. This in fact, at least, aligns with the mission of UNRWA, which mentions “works” for Palestinians in its name.

However, in Gaza, there were frequent complaints about the vague requirements for those seeking employment in the agency, along with the procedure of bidding for contracts to supply goods, repair schools, or engage in any other activity sponsored by UNRWA. It is possible that this vagueness is not accidental, and it has led to the emergence of entire families or even dynasties of UNRWA employees, businessmen, and intermediaries closely connected to the organization.

One of the agency's primary charitable programs, the job creation program for refugees, is anything but a model of efficiency. Over 15 years, it managed to find permanent or temporary work for fewer than 32,000 people, hardly impressive given that the total number of Palestinian refugees, as mentioned earlier, is around 6 million. The agency has also seen cases of “ghost employees.”

In its reports, UNRWA claimed to assist 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, but an audit conducted by the Lebanese government revealed that only 175,000 people in the country fit this definition. Even within the UN, it is acknowledged that “bribery and corruption in procurement, contractor selection, distribution of food and money, hiring, and promotion” are not uncommon in UNRWA.

However, corruption is far from the most serious of the accusations against UNRWA employees. The agency has been at the center of scandals related to the justification of violence — and even terrorism — on numerous occasions.

The agency has been at the center of scandals related to the justification of violence — and even terrorism — on numerous occasions

UNRWA manages schools and other educational institutions in all 59 refugee camps under its care, as well as some beyond. The organization itself develops the curriculum and prints textbooks. Funding for this work, like all other agency activities, comes from foreign sponsors. After the Palestinian Authority revised its school curriculums in 2017, one of these sponsors, the government of the United Kingdom published a review of the new textbooks, which were found to contain anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic statements. UNRWA revised its curriculum and rewrote textbooks, earning an award from the British Council in 2021 for these efforts. However, journalists discovered that UNRWA schools continued to glorify terrorists.

The textbook scandal was not an isolated incident. In 2017, Israeli intelligence found that a person named Suheil al-Hindi had been elected to the Hamas political bureau at the same time an individual of that name was working as a teacher in one of Gaza's schools as an employee of UNRWA. Faced with accusations of collaboration with terrorists, the agency hurriedly announced that al-Hindi would no longer work within its system, but it refrained from commenting on the potential connection between its teachers to Hamas.

In reality, in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas ruled for over a decade and a half, no one, not even employees of international organizations, could operate outside the movement’s control and influence. Israelis even claimed that representatives of Hamas were constantly present in every school — including in those managed by UNRWA — monitoring students during both educational and non-educational activities and recruiting them into its youth organization.

In 2017, Israeli intelligence found that a person named Suheil al-Hindi was elected to the Hamas political bureau. Simultaneously, an individual with the same name was a UNRWA employee

On the West Bank, where Hamas is not in power and customs are much more liberal than in Gaza, the agency still managed to get involved in scandals related to terrorist ideology. In 2013, a documentary titled “Jihad Summer Camp: Inside the UNRWA Summer Camp” was released. In this film, children talked on camera about dreaming of becoming martyrs and preparing to take up arms to fight against infidels. Although the film does not provide direct evidence that these ideas were gleaned from UNRWA employees, their expression by young Palestinians at its summer camp certainly did not enhance trust in the agency.

In Israel, UNRWA is often seen as almost a branch of Hamas, with accusations that terrorists hide rocket arsenals in its schools, that Hamas tunnels run beneath the agency's buildings, and even that a UNRWA ambulance was used to smuggle weapons used in attacks against Israelis. After the start of the current war, the Israel Defense Forces reported finding a tunnel in Gaza under one of the agency's schools that was used by Hamas. The non-governmental organization UN Watch, which aims to monitor the effectiveness of the United Nations, compiled a list of UNRWA employees who justified Hamas attacks on Israel or even celebrated them. The list, based on an examination of the social media pages of UNRWA employees, mentions twenty people. Most of them are teachers. In a similar list published in March of the previous year, there were 133 names of UNRWA workers sympathetic to Hamas.

The agency itself has always offered assurances that it does not collaborate with Hamas, and even that it is opposed to the Hamas dictatorship in Gaza. However, in Israel, little credence is given to such strongly worded public statements. As a result, the government of the Jewish state has been advocating for the dissolution of UNRWA and for the transfer of its responsibilities to another UN agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose mission is to support all refugees worldwide other than Palestinians.

The simplest and most effective way to achieve this goal is to deprive UNRWA of funding — or at least to significantly reduce it. The agency has faced budget crises in the past, whether related to scandals such as the one involving its former head and his girlfriend, or to political factors such as former U.S. President Donald Trump's initiative to expedite the Middle East peace process by pressuring the Palestinians. However, as soon as the scandals subsided — or when Trump left the White House — funding was reinstated at close to its previous level.

Unable to get rid of the agency, the Israeli government, as reported by local media, is preparing to expel it from the Gaza Strip after the conclusion of the ongoing war. The details of the government's plan are not yet known, but it is unlikely to involve complex maneuvers. More probably, Israeli will simply prohibit UNRWA from operating in Gaza and will take on its functions themselves.

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