The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) has always denied links to Palestinian terrorism, or downplayed the significance of the relationship. As UNRWA’s former Commissioner, Peter Hansen, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in October 2004, “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don’t see that as a crime.”
UNRWA began its emergency food and shelter aid programs to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon in May 1950. Over the years, though its official mandate hasn’t been modified, UNRWA has been providing governmental and development services. UNRWA’s former legal advisor and general counsel, James G. Lindsay, published an important study in 2009: “Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees.” Mr. Lindsay shows how UNRWA changed its function from “status-based” (treating Palestinians as refugees) to “need-based” (treating Palestinians as dependents). More than six decades later, and despite the establishment of an independent Palestinian governing body, UNRWA continues to operate in parallel with the government, both in the PA-ruled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The world community facilitated Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian Authority election, when it allowed Hamas to run under the name “List of Change and Reform.” In June 2007, Hamas took over control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Since then, despite repeated promises to cut off funds to Hamas, international aid organizations and many countries have continued funneling money to Gaza, purportedly as humanitarian aid, but more recently to fund the “Gaza Administration.” Hamas’s rule over Gaza does not seem to be an obstacle to funding it.
Although the designation of Hamas terrorists as individuals is lacking, the organization and its various entities are designated by the Treasury Department on its Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN). But the UN does not list Hamas as a terrorist organization at all. It only lists the Taliban and al Qaeda as terrorists. A May 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report included UNRWA’s admission that it does not screen prospective staff or aid recipients for ties to Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad (IJG), or other local terrorist groups.
The GAO report stated:
“According to UNRWA, the UN Security Council has various working groups for terrorism-related issues, but the Sanctions Committee’s UN 1267 list is currently the only such UN terrorist screening list available…. The list is limited to those individuals or entities affiliated with Al-Qaida and the Taliban and thus does not specifically include major regional groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which the United States has designated as foreign terrorist organizations.”
By the end of 2007, UNRWA employed more than 29,000. Less than 200 were listed as “international,” the rest were Palestinian, organized in unions. UNRWA’s Arab workers union is controlled by Hamas. In 2003, Hamas won more than 90 percent of the votes. In 2005, UNRWA provided a large increase in salaries for its thousands of workers. Since HAMAS deducts three to five percent of the UNRWA-paid annual salaries as membership fees, the raise contributed directly to Hamas’s coffers. Through another affiliate, the Islamic Bloc, Hamas also controls the UNRWA teachers union and UNRWA-funded schools.
UNRWA facilities and personnel have also been tied to numerous terrorist attacks on Israel. Its schools have been used as meeting places for Hamas terrorists and weapons storage, and UNRWA’s Hamas-affiliated staff members have used UNRWA equipment to transport arms for use in terrorist activities. For example, IDF-captured documents and evidence during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 showed that the UNRWA school compound across from the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis was used by Hamas to launch rockets into Israel, and that other UNRWA schools were used to store weapons and to hide Hamas operatives.
On January 12, 2009, Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter stated that Shifa Hospital, Gaza City’s main medical center, had become the de facto Hamas headquarters, and that: “Shifa Hospital has long ago ceased to be just a hospital, just as the UN humanitarian and health services in Gaza long ago ceased to be just humanitarian services providing food and medical services.” Still, UNRWA’s response was: “Where any abuse of UN installations is discovered the UN carries out disciplinary action, including dismissals.” The known number of rockets found and fired from UNRWA facilities shows that the disciplinary measures, if any, were ineffective.