Debate escalates over whether UNRWA aid agency for Palestinians is a lifeline or threat

A banner outside an UNRWA health facility in the Bethlehem area. (Eliyahu Freedman)

by Eliyahu Freedman

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (JTA) — At the entrance to the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, a large poster depicts a white hand tearing away an UNRWA tent from a Palestinian woman and her children. Next to the image, a caption reads, “UNRWA services are our right until return.”

Below the image of the hand is another of three fists rising in the air: One holds a key, the symbol of the Palestinian demand to return to homes across the West Bank, Gaza and all of Israel. Two more hands hold rocks representing Palestinian resistance against Israel.

A list memorializing the camp’s “martyrs” — about two dozen people killed in conflicts with Israeli forces — is painted on the wall next to the mural. Next to that is a map of Palestine “from the river to the sea” — the territory of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s portrait in the middle.

Nearby is a four-story health clinic managed by UNRWA, the United Nations aid agency for Palestinians. A modern building opened in 2020 with funding from Saudi Arabia, the clinic is the main health care address for the camp’s residents and other West Bank Palestinians designated as refugees — offering everything from perinatal care to “active aging” services for the camp’s estimated population of more than 7,000. The majority of camp residents live in an area of 0.03 square miles.

The juxtaposition reflects the two roles that UNRWA has long played.

Its defenders see it as a vital provider of social services to millions of Palestinians. Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson from 2007 to 2019, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently that the agency serves “people who are living fragile, vulnerable and desperate lives in appalling circumstances.”

But for many Israelis, the agency is a bogeyman that, critics say, represents and encourages Palestinian rejection of Israel. Former Israeli lawmaker Einat Wilf said UNRWA exists only to “maintain a permanent question mark over the existence of the State of Israel.”

The Israeli view has been strengthened in recent weeks, amid ongoing revelations that agency staffers participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and kidnapping of Israeli hostages. In Gaza, 20% of UNRWA’s staff is accused of being affiliated with Hamas’ military and political branches — leading the United States, European Union and a string of other countries to cut or reduce their funding for the agency.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said last week in remarks to the U.N. General Assembly that the agency’s operations are at a “breaking point” and that Palestinians not only in Gaza but in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and elsewhere could lose services like education, healthcare and sanitation.

“We’re in a very desperate situation, quite honestly,” said Adam Bouloukos, director of UNRWA affairs in the West Bank, on a recent journalists’ tour of the Aida camp. In the health clinic, he said, “If you walk around and you see a doctor or a nurse, they are UNRWA staff on UNRWA contracts. … Without the salaries and without the staff, we begin to collapse.”

Even some Israelis, despite supporting an eventual end to the agency, appear to have been shocked and concerned by the abrupt sanctions. “If UNRWA ceases operating on the ground, this could cause a humanitarian catastrophe that would force Israel to halt its fighting against Hamas,” a senior Israeli official told the Times of Israel on condition of anonymity several weeks ago. “This would not be in Israel’s interest and it would not be in the interest of Israel’s allies either.”

UNRWA was created by a U.N. General Assembly resolution in 1949, shortly after Israel’s founding and the corresponding displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Its mandate was renewed by the U.N. General Assembly two years ago, to last until 2026, with 157 countries voting in favor. Israel was the only country to vote against the measure, while 10 countries including the United States abstained.

Now, Bouloukos said, the organization is in the midst of both a high-stakes diplomatic campaign to reassure donor countries, while also devising an emergency triage plan for its essential services if funds run out. He would not address the controversy over UNRWA’s Gaza workers, saying that an investigation is being conducted by the United Nations. (Advocates for Israel have cast doubt on the investigation’s rigor.)

According to Bouloukos, the controversy over UNRWA hasn’t only affected its operations in Gaza, but also made providing services more difficult in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Vandals have been writing “UNRWA = Nazis” on the agency’s cars, he said, adding that people have made obscene gestures toward him as he has driven through Jerusalem in an UNRWA vehicle.

“Many Israeli soldiers in the West Bank used to be based in Gaza,” he said. “And they brought that anger and that tension into the West Bank, so when they see anybody with an UNRWA lanyard or donor ID, we’re actually a target even in Jerusalem.”

But some opponents of UNRWA in Israel say its presence is superfluous, at least in Jerusalem, the entirety of which Israel considers its undivided capital. Deborah Srour-Politis, an attorney who unsuccessfully ran for the city council with a far-right party this year, said UNRWA shouldn’t operate in the city because Palestinians with Jerusalem residency can access Israeli social services.

“The Arabs who live in Jerusalem have the blue card,” she said, referring to the IDs carried by Israelis as well as Jerusalem Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are not Israeli citizens. “They benefit the same way as Jews with medical treatment, schools, everything.”

Kobi Michael, a senior researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies and Misgav Institute think tanks, said the same logic should extend to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well: He believes they should receive services from Palestinian local government, not UNRWA.

“Palestinians who live in the West Bank are under the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip are under Hamas and hold Palestinian passports,” he said. Like Wilf and others, he also criticized UNRWA for advocating for a Palestinian right of return to Israel, which Israeli Jews and their supporters say would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Since Oct. 7 there is a very broad consensus now on the Israeli side that UNRWA must be dismantled,” said Michael. “The idea that a U.N. agency is advocating for the right of return, which means the destruction of a state which is a member of the U.N., is not less than a paradox, it is just ridiculous.”

But Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University who researches Palestinian refugees, said blaming UNRWA for the Palestinian desire to return indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of Palestinian society, and the 6 million Palestinians defined as refugees. For Palestinians, the “Nakba,” an Arabic term meaning “catastrophe” that denotes Israel’s founding and the displacement, fleeing or expulsion of Palestinians, is a foundational historical event.

“I don’t think UNRWA has anything to do with the right of return,” he said. “The Nakba and forced displacement is the defining moment in Palestinian cultural, political and social identity. So the notion that UNRWA artificially keeps it alive, just defies — if you look, for example, at Israeli Arabs who study at Israeli schools, their polling numbers show similar support for the right of return.”

Still, Israel’s government is actively trying to sideline UNRWA, even as officials appear to acknowledge the necessity of delivering aid during the current crisis. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, recently advanced a bill that would ban UNRWA’s presence within Israeli territory. And a brief plan for the so-called “day after” the war, released by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not forecast a role for UNRWA in Gaza and is ambiguous regarding its future in the West Bank. “UNRWA is intertwined with terror and needs to be dissolved,” the report said.

The report proposed that other aid organizations take UNRWA’s place, though the difficulty of delivering aid was accentuated last week, when dozens of Gazans were killed in chaotic circumstances in the midst of an Israeli-led aid delivery.

Donor countries could resume their funding of UNRWA should the U.N. investigation offer reassurances about the organization’s neutrality. And in the Aida camp, residents expressed gratitude for UNRWA’s services.

“There is no money, there is no help, there is nothing,” said Jamal, a falafel seller with a stand across from the UNRWA Health Clinic who declined to share his full name with a Jewish publication. “But UNRWA services are good.”

Bouloukos noted that, at least technically, UNRWA is a temporary agency whose mandate keeps getting renewed for periods of a few years each. The best way for Israel to make it go away, he said, would be to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians.

“Our mandate is a three-year mandate,” he said. “It’s meant to be temporary, but we’ve been in business for 75 years.”

He added, “We are here until there is a durable, just, lasting solution to the conflict, which we all want to happen. So if there’s a solution to the conflict tomorrow, UNRWA goes away. Like, its mandate dissolves, which would be a good thing.”

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