UNRWA Chief Should Resign – OpEd


One-time US President Harry S Truman kept a slogan on his desk: “The buck stops here”.  The idea was to remind himself daily that, as the nation’s leader, he intended to take ultimate responsibility for what happened under his watch.  There would be no  “passing the buck”, no denying responsibility or laying the blame elsewhere..  

This is the principle at one time observed pretty universally by any chief executive.  Heads of organizations took it for granted that they were responsible for its actions. Standards may have slipped somewhat in recent years, but it is still generally accepted that when organizations act reprehensibly, their leader is ultimately responsible for its failures, and relinquishes his or her post. 

The furor that has erupted around the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is not the first time that UNRWA has been charged with scandalous conduct, but it is undoubtedly the worst.  The organization is tarred with offenses so heinous that they almost beggar description.  Yet we have heard not a peep from its commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, suggesting that he is shouldering any kind of responsibility, let alone considering his position.

 Based upon what must be pretty convincing intelligence provided by Israel, at least 14  countries have stopped funding UNRWA for the time being.  Details of Israel’s intelligence dossier were disseminated in the media on January 30.  They provide information indicating that, incredibly, 12 people employed by UNRWA participated personally in the massacre of 1200 people and the capture of some 240 hostages that took place in Israel on October 7.  

The dossier lists the names and jobs of all 12 allegedly involved in Hamas’s attack, and the specific allegations against them.  It details how six of the UNRWA staff inside Israel on the day of the attack were tracked through their phones. Others were wiretapped and, during a series of calls, were heard discussing their involvement in the attack. 

It describes ten of the 12 as members of Hamas, and another as affiliated to Islamic Jihad. It names a school counselor from Khan Younis as allegedly conspiring with his son to abduct a woman from Israel, and identifies an Arabic teacher employed by UNRWA as a Hamas militant commander who allegedly took part in the murderous attack on Kibbutz Be’eri.  A social worker in the Nuseirat refugee camp is accused of helping Hamas bring the body of a dead Israeli soldier into Gaza, and of coordinating vehicles for the terror group during the October 7 attack and handing out ammunition to its gunmen. The New York Times, whichalso had access to the intelligence dossier, reported that three of those monitored by Israeli intelligence received text messages on October 7 ordering them to report to muster points, while another UNRWA employee was ordered to bring rocket-propelled grenades stored inside his home.

But the scandal runs much deeper.  According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the dossier says that about 10 percent of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza have ties to Islamist groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 

On January 28 the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres said he was horrified by the allegations and that nine of the 12 employees identified as being involved with Hamas had been sacked. One was dead, he added, and the identities of the other two were being clarified.  While the UN investigates, so far at least 14 countries, among them the US, the UK, Germany, Australia, Italy, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and Japan have not responded to pleas from Lazzarini and Guterres to resume their payments to UNRWA.

A senior Israeli government official told the Wall Street Journal: “UNRWA’s problem is not just ‘a few bad apples’ involved in the October 7 massacre. The institution as a whole is a haven for Hamas’s radical ideology.”

Around the time the State of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what was called “Palestine” at the time, some 750,000 people, left their homes – some on advice, some from fear of the forthcoming conflict, some during the fierce exchanges.

After the armistice the UN set up a body to assist them – UNRWA.  It  began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment by the UN of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Ever since, Palestinian refugees have been treated differently from all the other refugees in the world.  One reason is that from the start UNRWA totally ignored a key aspect of its remit.

The 1949 UN General Assembly resolution that established UNRWA called for the alleviation of distress among Palestine refugees and stated, crucially, that: “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.”  In other words, the new agency’s mission was intended to be temporary as the refugees under its wing were resettled.
         By 2024 the “temporary” UNRWA had been transformed into a bloated international bureaucracy with a staff in excess of 30,000 and an annual budget of around $2.2 billion.  As for the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees, that had mushroomed from around 750,000 to 5.9 million as a result of its decision to bestow refugee status in perpetuity upon “descendants of Palestine refugees”– children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  The growth in UNWRA’s client base was therefore exponential year on year, justifying an ever-expanding staff and an ever-increasing budget.  No resettlement policy was instituted, and the temporary refugee camps became permanent.  

While the main UN agency dealing with refugees – UNHCR – concentrates on resettling them, facilitating their voluntary repatriation or their local integration and resettlement, UNRWA maintains an ever-expanding client base of millions in their refugee status decade after decade.  

“We have been warning for years,” said Israel Katz, Israel’s Foreign Minister: “UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza.”

That final charge is substantiated by a recent in-depth investigation into UNRWA’s educational program.  According to the report by IMPACT-se, issued in November 2023, educational textbooks used by UNRWA continue to glorify terrorism, encourage martyrdom, demonize Israelis, and incite antisemitism, despite promises to remove such content. 

The report identified 133 UNRWA educators and staff found to promote hate and violence on social media, and an additional 82 UNRWA teachers and other staff involved in drafting, supervising, approving, printing, and distributing hateful content to students.

When the organization you are leading is found to have been infiltrated by a terrorist organization, to have become its instrument of propaganda, to have actually been used as a base for a most horrific massacre of innocent civilians, then the honorable course is to take responsibility for the failures.  UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, should resign.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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