When it was established following the horrors of World War II, the UN had some incredibly noble aims. According to their foundational document, one of the key purposes of the United Nations was a commitment to “maintain international peace and security”. Nearly 80 years later, if you look at their work in Israel and the Palestinian territories, they’ve done anything but.
The UN hasn’t just failed to broker any sort of peace in more than 75 years of fighting, but has, at nearly every opportunity, made things worse.
Take its offshoot, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), for example.
Every other refugee from every other conflict in the world is dealt with by one agency. But in the aftermath of Israel’s war of Independence, the UN decided that this conflict necessitated a unique solution.
Now, in 2024, the body is still the only UN group dedicated to one conflict. Never mind the millions of Syrian refugees, or the hundreds of thousands who fled Afghanistan or Ukraine, only Palestinian refugees are seen as deserving of their special attention.
No other group is treated like the Palestinians. Only Palestinians “inherit” refugee status. Someone whose great-grandfather fled the area as part of the Nakba in 1948 and ended up in the UK where their parents and grandparents laid down roots is still counted as a Palestinian “refugee”, according to their backward logic.
It is why even in Gaza and the West Bank high-rise apartment blocks are called “refugee camps” even if they are Palestinians in the area many regard as Palestine. The very fact that they are called refugees maintains the idea that they have somewhere to go “back” to. This obsession with “return” fed by UNWRA is partly what destroyed the Oslo Peace Process and has scuppered every other attempt at a peace deal.
In UNRWA schools, across both Gaza and the West Bank UN Watchdogs report that children are taught maths by looking at the angles of rockets and adding up numbers of “martyrs” killed, while reading exercises reportedly include celebrations of firebomb attacks on Jews.
They are taught that Jerusalem is “theirs”, Jews stole the land and need to die and – according to one recent video of a young boy that “we must sacrifice ourselves and become martyrs”.
On October 7, as the scale of the Hamas atrocities became clear, the 3,000 teachers on a Gazan UNRWA Telegram group reportedly celebrated, as exposed by the charity UN Watch. The group’s admin Safaa Mohammad Al Najjar from Raffa wrote “Praise be to God” about the “holy warriors” who were massacring Israelis. Teacher Moreed Abdulaziz Issa, meanwhile excitedly tweeted of the massacre: “What we did exceeded expectations…what they do after doesn’t matter.” Another teacher, Abdallah Mehjez, who once worked for the BBC, sent out a tweet urging Gazan civilians not to move when messaged by Israel but to stay in their positions and serve as human shields.
In charge of young minds – half the schools in Gaza are run by UNRWA – the organisation has continuously perpetuated the idea that there will be a “right of return” if the Israelis can be forced off the land. How different the conflict might look if the Palestinians had, like every other people, been encouraged to accept their circumstances and adapt to reality rather than continuously demanding the fight is forever started again. The millions of Irish people in America descended from famine refugees don’t demand their right of return the Emerald Isle.
And then there is the fact that under – literally under – the auspices of UNRWA, Hamas has been building terror tunnels. The IDF has found a network much bigger than it could have possibly imagined – a 350-mile warren in the Hamas tunnel city known as Lower Gaza. And Col Elad Shushan, head of the 646th Brigade in Gaza, says that it all happened under the watchful eye of UNRWA: “There is not a UNRWA site, school, mosque, or kindergarten in which we didn’t find weapons,” he told the Times of Israel. “None. One hundred percent.”
UNRWA admitted in 2017 that a tunnel had been built under one of their schools and that it had “sealed the cavity”. They announced they’d found a tunnel under another school in 2022 and announced: “The Agency protested strongly to the relevant authorities in Gaza to express outrage and condemnation of such a structure underneath one of its installations.”
And yet the building of the tunnels under UNRWA facilities continued. At a meeting at the UN last week, one official was asked if there had ever been any indication about the tunnels being built under the city. Astonishingly he replied: “Not to us. I mean it seems to me that all this infrastructure was built in a highly secretive way.”
And the depressing thing is that a big part of its work is funded by us. The UK government paid UNRWA $14m in 2022; our money was spent on fuelling hatred against Israel. The biggest funder is the USA followed by the EU, so isn’t it time those paying for UNRWA started demanding some proper accountability for it?
Israeli MK Sharren Haskell, who was a border police commander during her military service at the tail end of the Second Intifada and witnessed the aftermath of many Hamas attacks, started a committee looking at UNRWA in 2015. She is now convinced “there can never be a peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians as long as UNWRA is there”.
She adds: “There have been many offers made to the Palestinians since 1948 and all of them were rejected because of the principle of the ‘right of return’ which is perpetuated by UNWRA. As long as they continue to tell people that somebody the Jews will be gone and they can have the whole land there will never be a better future for any of us.”
She believes that when the war is over, charities and human rights organisations from individual countries will have to take over. Because as long as UNRWA is around, the heads of Gaza’s children will be filled with dangerous myths, that will only prolong their suffering.