Since the October 7 massacre, numerous reports have emerged, detailing connections between Hamas and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), particularly in the Gaza Strip. These allegations range from open and widespread identification with the terror group on social media by UNRWA workers or students educated by the organization to the involvement of some in actual terrorism. A released Israeli hostage claimed to have been held in the home of a UNRWA teacher – a father of 10 who provided him with minimal food and medicine.
Research institutes, including one I have worked in, have been tracking the organization for many years. Meanwhile, they have revealed that many members of the Nukhba Force (the Hamas unit that led the massacre) and additional Hamas members who perpetrated the slaughter are graduates of UNRWA schools or employees of the organization. This should not be surprising, as were the perpetrators of the Munich massacre carried out during the 1972 Summer Olympics by eight members of the Palestinian militant organization Black September.
One of the senior terrorists killed in the Gaza conflict was Hamas’ Economy Minister, Jawad Abu Shamala, who had also served as a teacher at a UNRWA school in Khan Yunis. Another UNRWA teacher in Gaza, Sara A-Dirawi, posted a video clip on her Facebook page on the day of the massacre, showing Hamas terrorists walking around Israeli streets with drawn rifles, firing at Israeli cars. She added a verse from the Quran seemingly endorsing these actions: “For we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased.”
For many, the connection between UNRWA and Hamas is challenging to imagine. To them, UNRWA is perceived as a UN organization with blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swedes caring for Palestinian children. However, this image of UNRWA is inaccurate. It is not a typical UN organization comprising foreign do-gooders and humanitarian agents. It functions as an extraterritorial arm of the UN, with its mandate renewed every three years by the UN General Assembly. Nevertheless, beyond that, the United Nations does not assume direct responsibility for UNRWA. Presently, UNRWA operates as a Palestinian organization, despite maintaining a UN facade and receiving Western funding. Almost all its employees (99 percent) are Palestinian, and until the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, UNRWA was the largest employer of Palestinians.
There’s nothing routine about UNRWA’s existence and activity. The agency was established in 1949 after the Arab-Israeli War, in order to provide shelter, welfare, and health services for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. A year later, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established to handle all of the world’s refugees. However, following pressure from Arab countries, the Palestinian refugees remained the sole responsibility of UNRWA – which to this day remains the world’s only refugee agency dedicated to a specific population.
UNRWA was established as a temporary agency because the UN focused at the time mainly on refugees from Europe. There were about 700,000 refugees from the war, and it was assumed that UNRWA would take care of them by providing welfare services and employment in cooperation with the host countries, settling all of them, and closing three to four years later – as happened with the temporary agency that arose at the same time to take care of Korean refugees after World War II. But unlike with Korea, things were more complicated in the Middle East. The Palestinian refugees themselves refused to be absorbed into the new countries because they understood that this would mean they had lost the war – and they haven’t been willing to accept that to this day.
Not only did the refugees themselves refuse, but the Arab host countries refused to integrate them, since any absorption would presumably have constituted an agreement about the outcome of the war and ran contrary to the refugees’ right of return to Israel. UNRWA had good intentions initially. There were budgets, good people, and employment projects, but if the mission of any refugee agency is to resettle people and end their refugee status, UNRWA has failed miserably. Over the years, there were changes and simplifications for the terms to receive refugee status and the eligibility of descendants to receive services from the agency. If at first only those who had lost their home and livelihood as a result of the 1948 war were considered refugees (with the definition later broadened to include their children), beginning in 1982, the right to be defined as a refugee was expanded to include every generation of descendants. In other words, even the great-grandchild and if not ended, their great-grandchildren of the refugee will also be considered a refugee.
Furthermore, unlike the rules applied to other refugees globally, in the case of UNRWA and the Palestinians, even someone who has received citizenship from another country is still considered a Palestinian refugee. Multi-millionaire super model Bella Hadid? Yes! In other words, most of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan are considered both Jordanian citizens and refugees according to UNRWA – this defies all international standards on refugee status.
Of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, 1.6 million are registered by UNRWA as refugees. Almost all of them have been born in Gaza and lived there all their lives. By now, their parents have been born in Gaza. Their grandparents were born in Gaza. And yet they claim to be refugees from Palestine; I think we can all agree that Gaza is Palestine. In essence, a child born in Gaza today, is considered a Palestinian refugee from a war that ended seven decades ago.
As a result, in its 74-year existence, the number of UNRWA beneficiaries has grown from 700,000 refugees to 5.9 million by 2022. This includes 1.6 million people in Gaza, a fourth generation of refugees – which is largely perpetuated thanks to the UNRWA eligibility system.
With the increase in the number of refugees, UNRWA has become a vast organization with a turnover of over $1 billion annually (a sum that is constantly increasing given the rise in the number of refugees) and a huge part of the Palestinian school, health and welfare systems. It operates in 58 refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, providing them with clinics and medical care, food and clothing assistance, welfare services, financial assistance (loans and help for small businesses), and infrastructure projects in the refugee camps.
While it is challenging to dispute the significance of providing medical assistance or food to those in need, the same cannot be said for UNRWA’s primary focus: education, constituting approximately 60 percent of its budget. UNRWA, particularly its schools, plays a pivotal role in shaping Palestinians into a community existing in refugee camps, distinct from their host countries. The underlying theme promoted within these schools is centered on the right of return and the rejection of the existence of the Jewish state. The goal of the school system is not to discuss the 1967 borders, but to return to the pre-1948 situation. In not one textbook does Israel appear on the map. Israel is not discussed as a country but a “Zionist entity”, and Israelis are not discussed as a neighboring people, but the “enemy”. Peace is rejected as a sign of weakness and violent jihad and martyrdom are promoted as the only means through which to achieve justice.
All of this has had grave real-life consequences on the peace process.
In July 2000, the world held its breath as the Israeli team, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the Palestinians, under Yasser Arafat, convened at Camp David under the watchful eye of President Clinton, pursuing a two-state solution. Israel offered 91% of the West Bank, 100% of Gaza, Palestinian control over East Jerusalem, effectively signaling the end of military occupation with no settlements in the future State of Palestine. We know from documentation and first-hand accounts of the Americans that throughout the process, the Palestinian side displayed a glaring absence of reciprocity. Arafat steadfastly refused to respond to concessions with concessions, and the basic Palestinian position was “no.” Arafat did insist that, as part of any agreement, all Palestinian refugees must have the right to return to sovereign Israel. Barak’s position, supported by Clinton, was that no refugees would return to the sovereign State of Israel. Instead, a compromise was proposed: refugees could return to the sovereign State of Palestine, covering the West Bank and Gaza Strip but not into Israel itself. Furthermore, Israel would offer substantial financial assistance for the refugees’ rehabilitation. Once again, the Palestinian position was to reject the counter-proposal. A few years later, Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, mirrored his predecessor’s unwillingness to accept an Israeli proposal by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This proposal went beyond the previous Israeli concessions and benchmarks, but it too was rejected on the same premise.
Accepting the return of Palestinian refugees to sovereign Israel would create a demographic reality where Jews would become a minority in their own nation-state. If, in both cases, the Palestinians showed no willingness to propose alternative territorial arrangements or consider concessions regarding Jerusalem, if ending the military occupation failed to satisfy them, and if having no settlements in the State of Palestine was deemed insufficient—yet, their primary demand was the right of return—it demonstrates in practice that the Palestinians have never truly accepted the concept of two states for two peoples. The only version of a two-state solution they have endorsed in practice envisions an Arab-majority state in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside another Arab-majority state encompassing present-day Israel.
UNRWA not only systemically perpetuates this idea through its refugee status but its education system legitimizes violent means. For example, in March 1978, Dalal Mughrabi, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, orchestrated one of Israel’s deadliest attacks known as the Coastal Road massacre. During this event, a bus on Route 2 was hijacked, resulting in the tragic deaths of 38 Israelis, including 13 children.
Today, Mughrabi is celebrated as a Palestinian national hero and a role model, depicted as a martyr who sacrificed herself for the cause. Her name is honored at rallies, in schools, and there are city squares named after her. The terror attack is also portrayed as an act of national heroism in textbooks, dedicating an entire chapter to Mughrabi. In the textbooks, she is described as “the shahida [female martyr] who, in her struggle, embodied one of the images of heroism, and is therefore eternally remembered in our hearts and minds.”
These textbooks are utilized in the schools of UNRWA in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. UNRWA oversees more than 700 schools in Palestinian refugee camps worldwide, with 284 in Gaza alone (where over half of the coastal enclave’s children study). The goal of the school system is not to discuss the 1967 borders, but to return to a pre-1948 reality. In fact, the textbooks explicitly reject the notion of peace. Essentially, UNRWA has systemically kept a society on hold through a belief that the existence of the State of Israel can be undone. Don’t take my word for it; the children say so specifically.
In 2013 journalist David Bedein, who has written extensively about the United Nations, interviewed children from various UNRWA schools. When asked what they learn in their schools, the responses are shocking. “They teach us that the Zionists are our enemy and we must fight them,” says one 12-year-old boy. Another says: “They teach us that [Jews] are bad people.” Another boy says: “I’m ready to stab a Jew and drive [a car] over them.” Another says: “We have to constantly stab them, drive over them and shoot them.” Yet another adds: “Stabbing and running over the Jews bring dignity to the Palestinians. I’m going to run them over and stab them with knives.”
A 6-year-old girl, meanwhile, says: “People love Palestine and they are ready to die for Palestine. I want to fight against them [the Jews] and to defeat them in war.”
One has to reach the conclusion that if an organization is supposed to take care of rehabilitating refugees, but its schools are full of war materiel and they teach the children about the right of return and jihad – they’re building the next war. In terms of the Western world, there’s a humanitarian failure here because the countries that donate money are causing children to engage in “righteous” suicide [martyrdom]. If the West really cares about the Palestinian children, then maybe they should stop. If the people had free will, they would probably not choose to be shahids. But you’re born into that, and all these children keep hearing is not how to improve their life but how to harm others to achieve something that is not going to happen.
UNRWA has created the intergenerational infrastructure and global legitimacy that supports this ideology, which is precisely what spawned the October 7 attack and many attacks before that. It promotes an idea that collapsed the peace accords and it has produced generations of trained murderers to view the slaughter of Jews motivated by the ideology of perpetual refugeehood and “return” as legitimate. Essentially it keeps an entire society on hold and worse.
And yet, today, as a result of the devastating war – the same old tune is being sung – renewed discussions about “reconstructing and redeveloping” the Gaza Strip. Wasted efforts, the same as all the other reconstruction attempts over the years. Rebuilding and developing Gaza is not feasible until the systematized ideological challenge is addressed. Because whether it was Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, that were running Gaza, the war still emerges from the fact that two-thirds of Gaza’s residents are in their minds “refugees,” rejecting Gaza as a permanent home to be developed, viewing it as a temporary base from which to take “back” Palestine “from the River to the Sea.” As long as the focus is on who governs Gaza, rather than on the prevailing ideology they endorse, we are destined for failure.
For peace to have a chance we need to limit Israeli maximalism and we need to limit Palestinian maximalism. Anyone demanding that Israel withdraw from the West Bank because its military rule is perpetuating the cycle of violence, should equally demand that the Palestinians relinquish the so-called right of return and advocate to disband the system that perpetuates the violence it spawns. The rebuilding process must be based on the simple insight that those who live in the Gaza Strip will themselves invest their efforts and resources in the Strip only if they believe that their future lies there.
Photo Credit: Majdi Fathi/TPS