In 2018, the U.S. abruptly cut its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the organization created in 1950 to tend to the needs of Arab refugees from the Israeli War of Independence. The reasons to deny financial support to UNRWA are numerous: unlike the UN itself and other international bodies, it counts descendants of refugees as refugees themselves, along with those who have citizenship in other countries; its schools teach students anti-Semitic and jihadist propaganda; and in Gaza its employees cooperate with terrorists and its schools sometimes serve as weapons depots. Worst of all, it functions to prolong, rather than solve, the Palestinian refugee problem.
Since coming to office, the Biden administration has restored funding, but has only received some vague assurances from UNRWA that it will rectify some of its most egregious behavior. James G. Lindsay writes:
In return for renewing its generous funding, the United States could have, inter alia, demanded that UNRWA
- Check its staff, beneficiaries, and contractors against the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control list—which at least would have reduced the likelihood of the agency using U.S. funds to support persons under sanctions;
- Take immediate action with regard to the decades-long saga of improper content in UNRWA textbooks—e.g., by paying for separate print runs of local textbooks, modified to be suitable for use by UNRWA students;
- Begin the process of identifying those persons on UNRWA’s rolls who actually meet the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) definition of a refugee;
- Move from a status- to a needs-based provision of services to refugees.
The 2021 framework agreement [with the U.S.] may carry minor benefits by highlighting a few embarrassing problems raised publicly by UNRWA critics (e.g., staff misconduct, textbook concerns), but the agreement mostly focuses on process-related items, such as reporting modalities, and on aspirational statements. More effective would have been to use UNRWA’s tenuous financial position to compel specific, tangible, and constructive actions such as those just outlined.