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Biden Administration Failing to Reform U.N.’s Palestinian Refugee Agency

No signs yet of the promised “neutrality, accountability, and transparency” from UNRWA.
by David May
March 31, 2022
Biden Administration Failing to Reform U.N.’s Palestinian Refugee Agency
A Palestinian worker seen inside the closed headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the southern Gaza Strip. (Photo by Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Its textbooks promote anti-Semitism and violence. Its previous leader resigned amid allegations of “misconduct, nepotism, retaliation . . . and other abuses of authority.” There is no question that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is in need of drastic reform.

Yet the Biden administration just appointed a former top UNRWA official to the State Department bureau that oversees hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. funding for her previous employer. Elizabeth Campbell, a new deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, worked for UNRWA from 2017 until earlier this year, representing its interests in Washington. UNRWA currently faces a serious financial shortfall, presenting the Biden administration with an opportunity to push for much-needed reform and accountability. However, it seems unlikely that Campbell—who just weeks ago was paid to publicly defend UNRWA and its budget—would now clamp down on her former employer.

The Trump administration cut off all U.S. funding for UNRWA in 2018, concluding that UNRWA needed to be reformed completely, if not dismantled. With a mandate to care for refugees, providing basic services like health care and education, but not resettle them, UNRWA has perpetuated the problem it exists to deal with. By conferring refugee status on multiple generations of Palestinians—a departure from U.N. practice in other conflicts—an initial refugee population of approximately 750,000 in 1948 has ballooned to 5.7 million. This expansive definition of who is a refugee, coupled with UNRWA’s support for the “right of return,” the Palestinian claim that all these millions of Palestinians have a right to resettle inside Israel, makes the agency a vehicle for prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To boot, UNRWA has also had serious issues of waste, fraud, and abuse.

When the Trump administration zeroed out aid to the U.N. agency in August 2018 after it resisted making changes, a State Department spokesperson announced, “The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”

The Biden administration opted to restore funding to the agency before securing structural changes in UNRWA’s mandate or operations—all but ensuring no change would occur. When announcing the decision last April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed U.S. taxpayer money would promote “neutrality, accountability, and transparency.” Since then, the United States has donated or pledged some $416.8 million to UNRWA, including more than $32 million contributed in the wake of the May 2021 Hamas-Israel war.

The Biden administration would likely defend its decision by pointing to the framework for cooperation with the State Department that UNRWA signed on July 14, 2021, in which it committed to stopping incitement against Jews and Israel in its education system and ensuring it does not support or provide assistance to terrorist groups. Days later, the United States announced another $135.8 million for the cash-strapped agency. On December 30, 2021, the State Department pledged an additional $99 million, again stressing the need for UNRWA to focus on “accountability, transparency, neutrality, and stability.”

But America’s return on investment appears to be negative. A report published in January 2022 by the Jerusalem- and London-based watchdog group IMPACT-se shows that UNRWA has continued to distribute teaching materials that glorify and promote violence. (Previous reports from the group, which pre-date the agreement with the Biden State Department, showed the same thing, as did an EU-funded report released in June 2021. Even the UNRWA commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, admitted last September that textbooks distributed by his agency promote anti-Semitism, hatred, and violence.)

UNRWA has frequently hidden behind a claim that it merely uses the curriculum of its “host country.” With this approach, UNRWA has deflected accusations that the Palestinian Authority textbooks it uses in the West Bank and Gaza incite Palestinians to violence, even though UNRWA is under no obligation to use these materials.

Beyond teaching materials, UNRWA personnel are also part of the problem. In August 2021, another watchdog group, UN Watch, issued a report detailing 113 UNRWA staffers who promoted terrorism, violence, and anti-Semitism, mainly on social media. For example, multiple teachers praised Hitler, espoused conspiracy theories of global Jewish domination, and shared Hamas propaganda videos. Following the report, UNRWA suspended at least six employees. What happened to the other 107 remains unclear.

UNRWA has also failed to demonstrate its neutrality. During the latest Hamas-Israel war, then-UNRWA Gaza chief Matthias Schmale drew Hamas’s ire and earned himself a one-way ticket out of Gaza for merely acknowledging that Israel’s strikes in Gaza were precise and largely avoided civilian casualties. Schmale is no longer with UNRWA. His replacement quickly met with Hamas and thanked the terrorist group for its “positivity and desire to continue cooperation.”

UNRWA also appears to be failing in its commitment not to support terrorists, having contracted with at least two organizations tied to terrorist groups in 2021. In both cases, the contracts were with health-care related institutions, but the connections to terrorist entities are troubling. UNRWA spent over $366,000 at Rassoul al-Azam, a Hezbollah-owned and -operated hospital in Beirut. UNRWA also paid over $1.2 million to the Union of Health Work Committees (UHWC), reportedly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) Gaza-based health organization. (The U.S. government designated the PFLP as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997.) The August 2019 murder of an Israeli teenager perpetrated by members of several PFLP-linked nongovernmental organizations elevated concerns regarding the PFLP’s use of NGOs as fronts.

With the Biden administration’s inability or unwillingness to force sorely needed change at UNRWA, there are several ways for Congress to intervene. Appropriators should consider tying any further assistance to UNRWA to key reforms: zero tolerance for anti-Semitism and incitement to violence; vetting all UNRWA beneficiaries, employees, and contractors according to U.S. terrorist designations; and a change in UNRWA’s mandate to support a durable solution to the refugee issue and help Palestinians achieve economic independence.

The United States should halt its contributions to this flawed organization until it cleans up its act, demonstrating the accountability, transparency, and neutrality it promised.

David May

David May is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @DavidSamuelMay.