On a recent Sunday morning, I paid a visit to a women’s community center in Zeitun, an outlying neighborhood in Gaza City that is run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It was packed. Behind one curtain, several middle school girls were getting an English lesson to supplement their formal instruction. In another room, women in their 20s were learning how to write a résumé and cover letter. Behind another door was a group of mothers getting assistance on how to help their children with homework.
And it is in that room that I heard one of the most emotionally affecting stories during my brief trip to Gaza: The group clamored to speak about this center, which, despite its densely packed rooms, offers an attractive and unusual opportunity for the women to gather outside the home. A mother who seemed young herself wouldn’t let me leave until she explained that the center brought her young teenager sufficiently up to speed in the classroom, and that the daughter is no longer thinking of dropping out and getting married but instead wants to continue and to attend university.
I spent a day touring various UNRWA facilities in Gaza and encountered other moving scenes: a ninth-grade human rights class in which an unusually interactive teacher guides students in learning to handle problems assertively but politely and without resorting to force; a vocational training program teaching carpentry to otherwise unemployable young men; an explanation from an earnest UNRWA official about how a problem with declining academic performance and collapse of school discipline had been turned around in a couple of years.
Who could ever object to an organization involved in such activities? In fact, UNRWA has many public critics who otherwise agree on nothing else: Hamas, the Israeli government and members of the United States Congress all periodically show deep annoyance at the six-decade-old international organization. What is even more surprising is that for all their annoyance, each one of these critics finds that UNRWA is indispensable for the current moment. And every political indication is that the current moment will last for a very long time indeed.
What bothers the critics, of course, is not so much the educational activities themselves, but the way in which a makeshift organization has become part of a permanent architecture that none of them controls.
Sometimes UNRWA is simply a convenient political target; in such cases, the actual facts are immaterial. Thus an Israeli television program launched an exposé of UNRWA highlighting a 12th-grade textbook supposedly in use by the agency; the producers had failed to take note that UNRWA schools stop at the ninth grade. And indeed, UNRWA is most frequently targeted on Capitol Hill because of textbooks it has not written. And, more strangely, it is criticized for utterly imaginary or misleading accounts of what those books say. Witness, for example, Newt Gingrich, who made the utterly false claim in one Republican debate that Palestinian textbooks say, “If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews get killed, how many Jews are left?” and that the United States even paid for those books.
Such antics might be at best tangentially related to UNRWA (since it simply uses whatever books are authorized by the local government), but they seem to pop up whenever the organization’s funding is discussed. For UNRWA, the pattern is worrying, since the impact on the organization’s funding could be fatal to programs that provide education for more than 40% of Gaza’s students, as well as health care and some other rudimentary social services for Palestinians spread across several countries. And occasionally there is more than a worry involved: Canada actually cut off funding UNRWA’s general operations as a result of such criticisms. UNRWA’s relations with Israel, Congress and the Hamas-led government in Gaza have all been tense at times. And yet as often as it seems to get caught in the crossfire, UNRWA emerges largely unscathed. Indeed, the closer the various actors look, the more indispensable UNRWA seems.