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To explain why, let us start with the Hamas-led government in Gaza. While UNRWA’s critics in Israel often have accused UNRWA of sheltering Hamas, my own impression from following Hamas’s policies and speaking to officials in its Ministry of Education is that Gaza’s leaders regard the organization as a necessary nuisance. In the five years since it took sole control of governing Gaza, Hamas has slowly squeezed out nongovernmental organizations, harassed political opposition and extended control over many aspects of public life. UNRWA is by far the largest and most effective organization in Gaza not under Hamas’s control. It has expressed criticisms about the organization’s summer camps, and annoyance at not being allowed to review and approve the innovative human rights curriculum. Indeed, it is in part because UNRWA schools follow the unified Palestinian curriculum that the Hamas government has not attempted to make unilateral changes to Islamize the content of Gaza’s textbooks. Yet any time Hamas’s actions have crossed UNRWA’s red lines, it is the former that has backed down, realizing that it would be utterly unable to fill the gaping hole in educational and social services if UNRWA shut down.
Israeli officials will often complain about UNRWA’s advocacy on behalf of Palestinian humanitarian needs. But while there is not much love, there is grudging acceptance by the Israelis, as well, that UNRWA provides irreplaceable and critical services and inserts an internationally supervised presence into Palestinian society, even in the Hamas-controlled Gaza. It is hard to imagine that a Palestinian society bereft of UNRWA’s services would serve any Israeli interest.
International donors certainly bear the chief burden of UNRWA, since they supply its budget. When complaints come, however, it is generally not from the broad base of taxpayers (when Canada cut off UNRWA, for instance, it saved no money but just shifted the funds to other Palestinian activities, including UNRWA’s emergency programs). Instead, some political actors will blame UNRWA for sustaining the problem it was constructed to ameliorate: the refugee status of millions of Palestinians. (Perhaps not so oddly, Palestinians will also make a similar complaint — that UNRWA is well designed to manage their refugee status and thus to decrease pressure to resolve it.) But the alternative for now — having Israel or the country of their current residence offer them citizenship — would not only be rejected by all potential hosts; it would also be impossible in the West Bank and Gaza, where there is no state to offer them anything. And it would run clearly against Palestinian-Israeli agreements to premise any final-status resolution on solving the refugee issue.
In short, when it comes to UNRWA, its critics often complain. But mercifully, this is one rare area where the protagonists seem not to believe fully in their own propaganda.
Inserted in the midst of a protracted conflict, UNRWA works hard not to alienate any party. I saw this in a subtle way on the streets of Gaza: I noticed that the walls surrounding UNRWA installations were decorated with colorful murals, clearly designed not simply to brighten the day of passers-by, but also to pre-empt any attempt to cover those same walls with the political graffiti and posters seen on every other thoroughfare.
So UNRWA continues to work and to keep its head down, because as long as it is able to do so, otherwise bitter enemies are likely to continue to allow it to serve Palestinian refugees until they resolve their conflict. And it is difficult to envision that happening anytime before UNRWA’s youngest students have become parents (and maybe even grandparents) themselves.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.