A growing bipartisan group of legislators is calling to permanently end American taxpayer support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency amid accusations that it took part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. But there's another reason for Democrats and Republicans to unify behind the plan to replace UNRWA: The agency denies millions of Palestinians their basic human rights.
For nearly 30 million refugees around the world, and tens of millions more who are internally displaced by conflict, one UN agency exists to help people replace chaos and despair with stability and hope. It's not UNRWA. It's the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. With an international staff of 19,000 and operations in more than 100 countries, the High Commissioner has a mandate to move people out of harm's way — whether through repatriation, local integration, or resettlement.
UNRWA, on the other hand, is the only agency in the world that has perpetuated a refugee problem. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, UNRWA stepped in to address the resulting refugee crisis. But it has only made things worse.
Today, with a staff of 30,000, UNRWA says it serves a population of 5.9 million. If those numbers sound bloated, it's because they are. This agency serving one population has 11,000 more employees than the High Commissioner, which has a mandate for the rest of the planet. Worse, the agency took a population of 600,000 refugees and somehow multiplied it several times over — by recognizing the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the original refugees. UNRWA's mandate is therefore antithetical to the High Commissioner's. It keeps people mired in refugee status — not just for their lifetimes but for their offspring's, too.
The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." But UNRWA's adoption of policies embraced by local governments suggests otherwise. Palestinians on the UNRWA registry in Lebanon face intense discrimination; they are excluded from workforce opportunities and denied an opportunity for political and economic rights. In the West Bank, a child in UNRWA's Jenin refugee camp is forced to live in worse conditions than a child in the Palestinian Authority city of Jenin. In Gaza, where the population totals 2.2 million, a staggering 1.7 million people are told they are refugees who will one day return to modern-day Israel. While UNRWA doesn't say so explicitly, it is implied that the refugees will return when Israel is destroyed. This is tantamount to a call for genocide.
And while UNRWA's message may be celebrated by advocates of Palestinian nationalism, the agency's policies undermine the case for Palestinian statehood. Indeed, with 870,000 registered refugees in the West Bank and another 1.7 million in Gaza, roughly half the population of the state would right now be considered wards of the international community — with basic government services provided by UNRWA, not the Palestinian Authority, which has no influence in Gaza right now and can barely provide services in the West Bank.
The White House and the State Department have recently declared their support for a Palestinian state. But they have not clarified whether recognition of a Palestinian state would require UNRWA's dissolution. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's claim last week that UNRWA is "indispensable" suggests there is no plan to transition UNRWA's responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority. This means that the government in Ramallah would not be servicing the entire population. In other words, it would lack legitimacy.
Those who continue to carry water for UNRWA, even after the damning reports that UNRWA employees took part in the Oct. 7 attack, claim that the agency is the only one that cares for Palestinians as the war drags on in Gaza. They argue that pulling funding from UNRWA would be a calamity for Palestinian human rights — leaving people without food, medicine, or shelter. They say that no alternative to UNRWA exists.
This is false. An alphabet soup of international organizations continuously respond to international crises on a moment's notice around the globe. And they receive significant financial support from the United States and its allies. For example, the World Food Program specializes in food distribution. The High Commissioner for Refugees specializes in caring for internally displaced persons — much of Gaza's population qualifies. Even the compromised World Health Organization, which parroted Chinese talking points relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, could play a role in Gaza's health care. The list goes on.
Of course, these and other UN agencies are also deeply flawed. They are also in desperate need of reform. None of them recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization, but to their relative credit, none of them have had 1,200 of their employees linked to Hamas. None of them have kept Palestinians in economic depression with limited political rights. None of them have maintained a permanent fiction of refugee status for millions of people who do not qualify as such.
Palestinians don't have to live like refugees. By ending support for UNRWA, Washington can finally unlock the political and economic potential of one of the Arab world's most educated populations.
Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research.