by Nadav Shragai
Researcher Adi Schwartz and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely warn that by not confronting the Palestinian refugee narrative, Israel is putting itself at risk.
The Israeli defense establishment is the strongest advocate for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the country. In the U.S., UNRWA's strongest lobbyist is Saudi Arabia. In recent months, both the Israeli defense and security apparatus and Saudi Arabia have been working, separately and uncoordinated, on behalf of a shared interest: stopping the Trump administration's attacks on the organization.
Reports from the U.S. that the $200 million cut to American aid to UNRWA is only the beginning not only shook up the organization itself, they also came as a shock to the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Israel's main opponent to any punitive measures against the U.N. entity, as well as the Saudi royal family, which is the third-largest donor to UNRWA.
COGAT objects to cuts in aid to UNRWA on practical grounds. No one denies that for years, the organization has fostered the perpetuation of the Palestinians' refugee status and even expanded it by making refugee status something that can be passed down through the generations, but even so, the defense establishment hates sudden changes. It wants quiet, and is afraid that if UNRWA is unable to help hundreds of thousands of needy Palestinians due to budget cuts, Israel will see rioting, an escalation in violence, and terrorist attacks.
In the early 2000s, then-COGAT Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad was already working to protect UNRWA. A decade later, as head of the Diplomatic-Security Branch of the Defense Ministry, he coordinated with then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren to torpedo a congressional initiative against the organization. UNRWA might be bad, Gilad told Oren, but Hamas is worse. Gilad's successors have kept to that line, and like the IDF they see the UNRWA as the lesser of two evils.
They admit that there are grounds for the arguments against the organization, but warn that the West Bank and especially Gaza and its refugee camps depend on money from UNRWA and foreign aid. They also warn that any detriment to UNRWA could end security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and lead to a new wave of terrorism.
COGAT's secret partner is Saudi Arabia. On April 12, the U.S. Government Accountability Office presented head of the Senate subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs Sen. James Risch with an in-depth report on UNRWA.
The report examined the textbooks used in UNRWA schools in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. It also looked at the extent of UNRWA's connections to terrorist operatives in the Gaza Strip. The findings, to say the least, discomfited UNRWA and those who fund it. In a nutshell, the report confirmed the information and documentation contained in dozens of research papers, recordings, and videos that chairman of the Center for Near East Policy Research David Badin and his staff had handed over to the Americans.
The findings demonstrate that the UNRWA school curriculum is heavy on hatred toward Israel, violent struggle, the Palestinian right of return, and eternalizing the conflict. Another recent report from researchers Dr. Arnon Gross and Dr. Roni Shaked about the Palestinian school systemturned out to be right on the money. Now it appears as part of an official U.S. document - but that fascinating report has been classified by experts in the U.S. State Department, which was pressured to keep it quiet by Saudi Arabia, which is neck-deep in UNRWA and the Palestinian refugee narrative. In the past two years alone, the Saudis have given UNRWA $183 million.
Israeli officials kept mum this week in the face of reports about American steps to clip UNRWA's wings, but Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely broke ranks and discussed the matter with the Israel Hayom weekend magazine.
"It's time for the defense establishment to stop keeping this harmful organization on life support. The money should go the those truly in need, and only through organizations that do not perpetuate the refugee narrative. There is no justification for UNRWA's existence. This organization, through international funding, keeps coddling the belief in Palestinian 'return' among children born five generations after the 1948 War of Independence. Return means the destruction of the state of Israel. I made that clear in my meetings in the U.S. and I'm happy that the Trump administration is taking the matter seriously," Hotovely said.
Adi Schwartz' book "The War for Return," which he co-authored with former Labor MK Einat Wilf, has taken on particular relevance these past few days. Schwartz says that while we might be able to understand the position of the defense establishment to opt for short-term quiet, the silence of the senior political echelon - which needs to challenge the Palestinian refugee narrative - is a mystery, "unless it doesn't want to win this war."
"The policy that, for security reasons, is afraid of change is bizarre and makes no sense. The Palestinians really do intend to implement their 'right of return.' It's not just words. Anyone who derails that narrative promotes Israel's national security," Schwartz said.
"What Wilf and I are suggesting is not a stop to humanitarian aid, but separating it from the political aspect of the refugee status. UNRWA is so firmly entrenched as leader of the system that the fear is that if it's taken out of the equation, everything will collapse. But nothing will collapse if a substitute for [UNRWA] is found. For that, we need politicians who see long-term, not just short-term," he explained.
Badin, whose material sparked the American about-face on UNRWA, wants to underscore that in contrast to the reports from a high-end PR firm that UNRWA is suffering from a severe budgetary shortfall, not one of the 44 countries (other than the U.S.) that donate to the organization followed the U.S. lead in cutting its budget. Badin would prefer to see internal reforms to the organization - including transparency and oversight of its activities - than for it to be dismantled.
Badin is now sending out another report, which states that UNRWA still employes 22,000 Hamas members in Gaza, and even allowing Hamas' student organization to stay active in the institutions it operates.
The defense establishment says that thus far, no one has seriously looked into alternatives to UNRWA and that until a viable alternative is available, the organization's activities must not be affected.
They think that any limitation to its work would bring more Palestinians into the circle of terrorism against Israel and destabilize the populace, which already feels that the ground is shaking beneath its feet – even on issues like the status of Jerusalem, a Palestinian state, and now the refugee industry, which it sees as a line not to be crossed.
"Anyone who shuts down UNRWA right now will get Hamas in its place, and jihad and extremism. Nature abhors a vacuum," a defense official warned.
Hotovely dismisses the arguments: "The Palestinians never needed excuses for terrorism and violence. UNRWA, which perpetuates refugee-dom and constantly inflates the number of refugees and tells the Palestinians stories that one day they'll be able to settle on the ruins of Israel, is the problem – not the solution."
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