Critics Blast UN for Ignoring Longstanding Ties Between UNRWA and Hamas

Critics Blast UN for Ignoring Longstanding Ties Between UNRWA and Hamas
(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images, Freepix)
February 09, 2024
February 12, 2024

That the United Nations fired a dozen employees of its Palestine relief agency for involvement in Hamas’s gruesome Oct. 7, 2023, massacre seems underwhelming to some scholars and policy experts on the issue.

They said they see it as a long time coming as part of a far deeper problem the U.N. has refused to face—they used terms such as “damage control” and “sweeping it under the carpet” to describe what’s happening.

“It’s wonderful to see people finally waking up to this fact,” said Simone Ledeen, a high-ranking Defense Department official during the Trump administration.

“They’re waking up to this fact, but also, my understanding is they were faced with undeniable proof. We already had proof, proof that existed prior to Oct. 7.”

The agency—the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA—has long been accused of having extensive involvement with Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

The U.S. government has classified Hamas as a terrorist organization since 1997.
After Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, UNRWA is the Gaza Strip’s largest employer. Nearly all its employees are Palestinians, which is a unique characteristic among U.N. relief agencies.
The agency, for almost 75 years, has made no effort to resettle Palestinians, instead keeping alive the increasingly unlikely hope that they will one day return to what is now the Jewish state of Israel.

UNRWA’s defenders say not resettling them is explicit in the agency’s charter.

Hamas has long used UNRWA schools, hospitals, and other buildings as human shields, a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and sanctionable by a U.S. president under the 2018 Shields Act.
A man drives a damaged truck into a U.N Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) school in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 21, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

Hamas stores weapons in, near, or under UNRWA facilities and has built its extensive terror tunnel system under them. They’ve commandeered relief food and supplies that the agency was supposed to distribute to civilians.

Israel has long accused UNRWA schools of teaching hate, the sort on display on Oct. 7, 2023, when terrorists murdered, raped, tortured, and burned their way through Israel’s border communities.

They filmed themselves doing it, posted those videos on social media, brought hostages back to Gaza, and abused them and the bodies of those they'd killed in front of cheering civilians.

U.S. Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation on Jan. 31 requiring the State Department to monitor what is being taught in Palestinian schools, an educational system U.S. taxpayers have been helping to pay for.

The State Department said on Jan. 26 that it had “temporarily paused” U.S. funding of UNRWA while it reviewed allegations against the agency.

The pause occurred a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres about the need for a thorough investigation.

Mr. Guterres’s spokesperson said the secretary-general was “horrified” after learning of the Israeli allegations that a dozen U.N. staff participated in the raid, including seven who stormed into Israeli territory.

One of those allegedly participated in a kidnapping, and another helped steal a soldier’s body.

A Palestinian woman walks past the shuttered headquarters of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City on Nov. 29, 2021. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini on Jan. 26 described the allegations as “shocking” and “horrific” and said he was firing the implicated employees immediately.

Two are believed to be dead.

“They are positioning themselves as very surprised by the evidence,” Kobi Michael, a professor affiliated with two Israeli think tanks, the National Security Institute and the Misgav Institute, told The Epoch Times.

“They are trying to create the image that they are taking the issue very seriously, and they are going to tackle the problems immediately. ‘We fire 12 people,’ and they believe that this will silence the criticism.

“And it will enable the U.N. to continue operating UNRWA. Because UNRWA is a political tool that is operated by the U.N. for political purposes.”

Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a pro-Israel watchdog group, testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability and its subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, on Jan. 30.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, testifies at a House hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 30, 2024. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, testifies at a House hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 30, 2024. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

He told Congress that not only did 12 UNRWA employees take part in the Oct. 7, 2023, massacre, but also 3,000 UNRWA teachers belonged to a Telegram social media group that celebrated the massacre.

His group was using professional Arabic translators to sift through 249,000 social media posts, he told Congress.

Mr. Neuer told them that 1,200 UNRWA employees belonged to Hamas, almost a tenth of the agency’s 13,000 Palestinian workers, and that 6,000 employees had family members in Hamas.

He asked Congress to not just suspend its funding but end it for good.

“Now, on Friday, Secretary-General Guterres announced that he was, quote, horrified to learn that members of his staff were implicated in terrorism,” Mr. Neuer said.

“Secretary-General Guterres, the head of UNRWA, their predecessors, and their senior colleagues could not possibly have been shocked that UNRWA employees are implicated in terrorism.

“Because for the past nine years ... we’ve been uncovering, publishing, and submitting to the U.N., to UNRWA, evidence of widespread and systematic incitement to jihadi terrorism.

“They cannot say they didn’t know. Mr. Guterres knew. The head of UNRWA knew. The United Nations knew. They simply chose not to act.”

Workers of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) hand out flour rations and other supplies in the southern Gaza Strip on Dec. 12, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

Eli Sperling, a teaching fellow at the University of Georgia’s Israel Institute, told The Epoch Times he saw a certain lack of candor in the U.N.’s stance.

“When you hear members of UNRWA speaking, they are not acknowledging that there were these direct ties. They are firing, they say, based on allegations and opening an investigation. So there is this tacit admission here,” Mr. Sperling said.

Still, it isn’t a complete admission of guilt, nor what’s being broadcast on Arabic-language media such as Al Jazeera in the United States.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do their own inquiry, Mr. Sperling said.

“But considering what seems like very concrete evidence, and then firing these individuals, they are trying to do damage control,” he said.

Ms. Ledeen, now a risk management consultant for Vantage ROI but formerly deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration, told The Epoch Times: “It’s no surprise to any of us who have been paying attention for many years now that UNRWA was responsible for not only employing card-carrying Hamas members but also used a lot of its funds to support terrorist activity.

“That’s why in the Trump administration, we cut off funding to UNRWA because we did not want U.S. tax dollars going toward that.”

The Congressional Research Service reported on Feb. 2 that the United States has contributed almost $7.2 billion to UNRWA since the agency’s formation in 1950.

Funding surpassed $200 million per year in 2009, the first year of the Obama administration; rose to almost $400 million during President Barack Obama’s second term; was cut to nothing by the Trump administration; and returned to more than $300 million per year under the Biden administration.

U.S. funding came to $371 million in 2023, the report said.

Other nations such as Japan, Australia, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland have similarly halted their funding to the agency.

President Trump cut off funding to UNRWA as part of his changing American strategy in the Middle East, Ms. Ledeen said.

“It was very clear that UNRWA was part of the old way of doing business that was only helping ... ’the bad guys.' It was not in the U.S. interest to continue funding. And that’s why they made the decision to cut funding,” she said.

Palestinian refugees gather outside the offices of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, in Beirut on Jan. 30, 2024. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

The Taylor Force Act, signed by President Trump in 2018, “prohibits what they call ‘pay for slay,’”—payments by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to terrorists, their families, and suicide bombers, she said.

The act was named for a U.S. veteran and West Point graduate murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in 2016 in Israel while part of a Vanderbilt University study group.

The Biden administration knew of the troubling allegations but resumed funding anyway, she said.

Mr. Michael said Israel itself shares some responsibility. It preferred to use UNRWA as a cutout in dealing with Hamas.

“Ultimately, Israel has responsibility with regard to the continuing existence of UNRWA because it was very comfortable. ... They prefer not to contact directly with Hamas,” he said.

“Each time Israel clashed with Hamas, which it did several times over the years, it was easier for the IDF to coordinate with UNRWA on humanitarian questions for everything. It even pushed international donors to keep donating to Hamas.

“But I think that things have changed because of Oct. 7. Many things have changed in the Israeli psyche. And this is the reason that now Israel has decided, enough is enough.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Ledeen said: “[UNRWA] has lost all credibility. It’s part of the broader issue, where things will not ever go back to the pre-Oct. 7 normal.

“That doesn’t exist anymore, and UNRWA is part of that.”