Moment Debate | Should UNRWA be shut down?

By | Apr 05, 2024
Opinion, Spring 2024

Interviews by Amy E. Schwartz


Larry Garber, a former senior USAID policy official during the Clinton and Obama administrations, was USAID mission director to the West Bank and Gaza from 1999 to 2004.

Hillel Neuer is the executive director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO and UN watchdog group based in Geneva, Switzerland.


Should UNRWA be shut down? | No

Should the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees be shut down?

No. At least, not yet. We have a tremendous humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and only UNRWA has the capacity and the wherewithal to implement an effective response, not just today but probably for a year or more. UNRWA has the physical infrastructure, the transport infrastructure, the personnel, and it’s essential that it be used to the fullest extent given the current crisis.

Has October 7 irreparably damaged UNRWA’s credibility?

Even back when I was USAID mission director in the Palestinian territories in 1999-2004, there were allegations about UNRWA personnel being involved with Hamas, about Hamas using its facilities, about the messaging that goes on in UNRWA schools, but also more general concerns that it’s a unique agency within the UN system dealing with just one population, the Palestinians, seemingly only to perpetuate and expand the refugee issue. October 7 has highlighted some of these concerns with Israel’s specific allegations that staff members were involved in acts of terrorism. At least on the surface, UNRWA responded quickly by dismissing those staff and agreeing to investigate additional names. It’ll be more difficult to evaluate agency staff who have, let’s say, a relative working for Hamas or who interact with Hamas officials. Drawing lines is difficult, given that there has to be some involvement with Hamas to get anything done in Gaza.

Has UNRWA always been controversial?

In the 30 years since Oslo, it’s been subject to a sort of gentlemen’s agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel has issues with UNRWA’s existence, yet military folks appreciated the services UNRWA provided because it took the burden off them and the PA.

It’s essential that it be used to the fullest extent given the current crisis.

Until recently, Israel engaged directly with UNRWA. All materials going to Gaza, including UNRWA materials, go through IDF checkpoints and security reviews. UNRWA doesn’t have its own intelligence agency, so its 13,000 employees in Gaza have all gone through Israeli vetting. Israel has now presented 400 or 450 names for investigation—out of 13,000, that’s still less than 3 percent. They’re not asserting it’s an entirely Hamas organization. And certainly, many who support UNRWA’s operations acknowledge that several proposed reforms warrant consideration.

Which of its functions, if any, are essential?

Primary health care, mother-child health care and vaccines are all delivered through UNRWA clinics. If the schools aren’t restarted, what will they do with the kids? Also, going to school provides a meal, and today not only the kids but their parents and grandparents need food, as well as shelter.

I’d envision a West Bank and Gaza, not now but in a foreseeable future, where the schools and medical clinics are run by either the PA or some successor institution if the PA is viewed as too tainted. Private organizations could take over some medical clinics in Gaza, just as there are private hospitals now in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

What services are still needed for Palestinians outside Gaza?

In Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, UNRWA is responsible for Palestinians who were refugees in 1948 and their descendants. Those functions can and should be taken over by other agencies or the host government. One essential step is to limit the number of people on UNRWA’s rolls by categorizing them in a way that’s more consistent with refugees elsewhere. Those who are citizens of the country where they reside shouldn’t qualify for refugee status. In Lebanon and Syria, they were not granted citizenship and are limited professionally—so what is the plan for them? That needs to be part of the discussion.

What should happen next?

The funding cutoff by the United States will be permanent. It would be hard even for a new Democratic administration in 2025 to revive it. That debate has been lost, and not only because of the war. UNRWA is a product of the UN General Assembly, so if there were a critical mass to dissolve or cut its budget, it would happen. But the United States is probably telling our allies quietly that we don’t see that as practical, and those allies may think, “The U.S. with its broken political system can’t be seen funding UNRWA but has basically given us the green light to do so.”

But October 7 has prompted a lot of folks in Israel/Palestine to rethink certain premises. In the 30 years since Oslo, negotiators assumed that, as with Palestinian statehood, the issue of dissolving UNRWA would come at the end, after final agreement on borders and the like. Maybe that was a mistake. Just as we’re now realizing that Palestinian statehood needs to be endorsed up front by the United States and other major Western countries, it needs to be clearer that UNRWA’s disappearance is a goal of negotiations.


Should UNRWA be shut down? | Yes

Should the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees be shut down?

Yes. Anyone who supports peace and a two-state solution should be the first to demand an end to UNRWA, because its whole point is to tell Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that their home is not there, it’s within Israel. There’s a direct line between that narrative and what happened on October 7—the terrorists were exercising their “right of return.” To continue supporting UNRWA would mean we want more October 7s and that we want to teach Palestinians in Gaza, and elsewhere, that they shouldn’t invest in building a future where they are.

Has October 7 irreparably damaged UNRWA’s credibility?

Anyone with eyes who was remotely interested already knew that UNRWA was complicit with terrorism. It’s not a bug but a feature, because UNRWA’s implicit mission is to dismantle Israel. The events of October 7 brought that goal into focus, because the atrocities and brutalities were so extreme. That UNRWA staff participated also was not new. UN Watch has been tracking the promotion of terrorism by UNRWA staff, teachers and school principals for nine years, and we estimate that thousands of UNRWA staff are engaged in it. And once the IDF went into Gaza, they discovered a lot of evidence.

Has UNRWA always been controversial?

Until recently, most people weren’t paying attention to it. Whenever we at UN Watch would submit our reports to the U.S. State Department and seek meetings to discuss them, the department would try to shield the funding. A senior State Department official who had worked with UNRWA told me he knew nothing about any problems in the schools; at the same time, we had found hundreds of examples of UNRWA teachers promoting terrorism and glorifying Adolf Hitler just among those whose Facebook accounts were public. No one wanted to hear about it. At most, an email would be sent to UNRWA saying, “We have some reports about problems,” and UNRWA would say, “We looked into it, we took care of it.” And then if Congress or another country’s government asked questions, the diplomats would say, “We spoke to UNRWA, they’re taking care of it.”

To continue supporting UNRWA would mean we want more October 7s.

Up until the revelation by Israel on January 26 that at least 12 UNRWA staff members had been involved in the events of October 7, the State Department was still saying UNRWA would play a “central role” in postwar planning. A day later, America suspended its funding. I think the American government was embarrassed and wanted to do something swift and decisive, which they thought would be temporary. But the new funding package contains a ban on money to UNRWA, and this may reflect a new consensus.

Which of its functions, if any, are essential?

Feeding people is important, but many other agencies around the world can do it. UNRWA only operates in a small part of the world; elsewhere, there are agencies such as the World Food Programme or the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that can do the work. Right now, refugees inside of Gaza need humanitarian aid—food, medicine, shelter. The UN treats tens of millions of people around the world who need these things.

In the long term, Palestinian entities should manage services. Why should the society be structured so that for 75 years, they’ve lived off UN handouts? It’s completely absurd. They’re very capable people.

What services are still needed for Palestinians outside Gaza?

In Jordan, most Palestinians are citizens. So if aid is going to UNRWA to run schools there, America should redirect it to the Jordanian Ministry of Education so they can run the schools. The current way makes no sense. It’s like telling Americans that descendants of Jews who came from Anatevka at the beginning of the 20th century are still Russian refugees and need assistance.

Lebanon is a little different because the Palestinians there are not citizens. But that’s a case of apartheid. They were born and raised for 75 years in Lebanon, they’re Arabs, they’re Muslims. Why don’t they have citizenship? They should have Lebanese citizenship and move on with their lives.

What should happen next?

Starting in Gaza, in the short term, America and its allies should redirect all funding to agencies not infested with terrorism, whether it’s the World Food Programme or other nonprofits and NGOs. And then Israel, together with its allies in America and Europe, should say that in the Gaza Strip, we’re done with UNRWA, and we recognize that a Palestinian born in Palestine is not a refugee and that if you live in Gaza, your home is in Gaza, not Tel Aviv. Palestinians who acknowledge that should be given all the money in the world to rebuild.

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