It’s time to shut down UNRWA - opinion

Over the long term, the closure of the agency could give rise to Palestinian voices challenging the “return” myth and promoting the pursuit of peaceful relations with Israel.

 AN UNRWA healthcare center in Nablus. (photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)
AN UNRWA healthcare center in Nablus.
(photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

The continued existence of UNRWA poses significant challenges to the national security of Israel, given its alignment with Palestinian interests and the Palestinian demand for refugee “return.” Hence, it is imperative for Israel to pursue the closure of UNRWA.

While the agency enjoys an international and UN facade, it is important to acknowledge its inherent Palestinian orientation, evident through its organizational structure, objectives, and a substantial number of Palestinian employees. This Palestinian affiliation creates a hostile environment toward Israel. 

Additionally, UNRWA has effectively masked its political activities under the guise of humanitarian efforts, which hampers Israel’s ability to expose the Palestinians’ unwavering commitment to a complete “return” to Palestine and the elimination of Jewish sovereignty over the land.

However, for a considerable period, Israel has chosen to provide protection to the organization, shielding it from any attempts to disrupt or reform its operations. This safeguarding has granted UNRWA a form of immunity, particularly evident in the international arena. This protection holds significant weight due to UNRWA’s unique funding structure, as it relies on annual contributions from countries rather than having a dedicated budget like many other UN agencies. 

Countries sympathetic to Israel finance UNRWA

Consequently, members of Congress and parliamentarians worldwide, sympathetic to Israel’s cause, often question why their respective countries continue to finance an organization whose primary objective perpetuates the conflict and ultimately seeks the destruction of Israel. 

 Palestinians protest demanding compensation for damaged homes in the 2014 war, outside the headquarters of UNRWA, in Gaza City, on September 5, 2022 (credit: ATTIA MUHAMMED/FLASH90)
Palestinians protest demanding compensation for damaged homes in the 2014 war, outside the headquarters of UNRWA, in Gaza City, on September 5, 2022 (credit: ATTIA MUHAMMED/FLASH90)

These concerned individuals frequently encounter obstacles in their attempts to challenge their country’s support for UNRWA, as Israel intervenes to impede such actions. It is imperative that this situation undergoes a transformation.

The foundation of the new Israeli policy should center around the separation of the political dimension from welfare services. Israel should not oppose the international community’s provision of financial aid to Palestinian society, as it is practiced in numerous other regions worldwide. However, Israel must strongly object to the linking of these welfare services with the fictitious “refugee status” and the promotion of the destructive narrative surrounding the Palestinian “return” myth.

The primary solution lies in enabling the international community to continue delivering aid to the Palestinian society through channels other than UNRWA. The international community already assists the Palestinians through various means, whether by providing direct support to the Palestinian Authority or through numerous governmental and non-governmental aid organizations. 

While it is understood that these entities may not necessarily align with Israel’s interests, they are all preferable alternatives to UNRWA. Gradually phasing out UNRWA’s operations will send a clear message to the Palestinians that the State of Israel is here to stay and that the time has come to work toward reaching an agreement rather than seeking its elimination.

UNRWA's education system should go first

THE PROCESS of gradually phasing out UNRWA should commence in Judea and Samaria, where Israel has the most significant influence on the ground. A viable approach is to initiate the transition by focusing on UNRWA’s education system, which lacks a genuine rationale for its existence. The proposal suggests transforming UNRWA schools into Palestinian Authority schools, where Palestinian children would attend, and the teachers’ salaries would be paid by the PA. The physical infrastructure, classrooms, and teachers would remain unchanged.

Essentially, this shift would remove UNRWA from the equation without causing substantial disruptions in the field. The impact on the lives of Palestinians would be minimal or even negligible. This approach would garner support from the security establishment due to the minimal risk of social and security deterioration. 

Educational services would remain unaffected, ensuring that children continue to receive education rather than being left idle on the streets.

Israel will advocate for donor countries to redirect the portion of their contributions allocated for the education system in Judea and Samaria from UNRWA to the Palestinian Authority. Many donor countries already transfer funds directly to the PA for various purposes, making this adjustment feasible. 

Both the international community and the Israeli security establishment are seeking avenues to strengthen the Palestinian Authority without compromising security, presenting an opportune moment for such a transition. The only exception is the United States, which, due to the Taylor Force Act, does not directly transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority. However, alternative solutions can be explored, such as leveraging other American or international aid agencies operating in Judea and Samaria, like USAID or UNICEF.

In due course, suitable solutions can be identified for each region in the Middle East where UNRWA operates, taking into account their specific needs and prevailing circumstances. This includes the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Tailored approaches can be developed to address the unique challenges and requirements of each region, ensuring a smooth transition and effective provision of necessary aid and services.

It is anticipated that the Palestinians will oppose these measures, which will compel them to explicitly state to both the international community and the Israeli audience that they view the existence of the agency as directly tied to their demand for “return.” This shift would put the Palestinians at a disadvantage since they have previously managed to place blame for the continuation of the conflict solely on the Israeli side.

The benefits that Israel stands to gain from this policy change are manifold. A gradual closure of UNRWA, while ensuring the continuity of services provided to Palestinians, would draw attention to the fact that the core struggle between Israel and the Palestinians revolves around the very existence of the State of Israel, rather than territorial withdrawals. 

This would represent a significant political achievement. The policy change would also facilitate Israel’s political battle in the international arena and rectify the misleading narrative that has taken hold concerning the conflict. Moreover, it would foster greater unity within Israeli society, which is currently divided regarding the extent of Israeli responsibility for the conflict’s continuation.

Over the long term, the closure of the agency could give rise to voices within Palestinian society challenging the “return” myth and promoting the pursuit of peaceful relations with Israel. This shift would bring Israel closer to a future of peace in the Middle East, replacing hostility with the potential for genuine reconciliation.

The writer is a fellow at the Jerusalem-based Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, and the author (with Dr. Einat Wilf) of The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace (St. Martin’s Press, 2020).