The End to US Funding to UNRWA- Opportunity or Threat?

 Michal Hatuel-RadoshitzkyKobi Michael

INSS Insight No. 1093, September 6, 2018

On August 31 2018, the Trump administration announced that the United States will cease funding UNRWA  – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Created in 1949 to support some 650,000 – 850,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the hostilities surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel, the agency operates schools and provides food, health care, and other social services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. All other refugees from other conflicts are aided by a different UN Agency: UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

In support of its decision to defund, the US described the organisation’s operational-business model as “unsustainable” given its “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”

This decision is a game-changer!

Wake Up Call?

The  Palestinians view the US’s new policy as a serious blow particularly as it follows:

– an American budget cut to UNRWA in January 2018

– the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

– a $200 million American budget cut in Palestinian assistance

–  reports speculating that the US intends to recognize only half a million out of over 5 million UNRWA-recognized Palestinian refugees.

While the above moves may serve as a wake-up call to the Palestinian leadership, the decision has the potential to hasten a path to Palestinian statehood.

With serious Israeli, American and international incentives and policy initiatives, the US decision to cease funding UNRWA can potentially inject new life into the Israeli-Palestinian process.

Poisoning Pupils. Education in UNWRA’s school – a curriculum of hate. According to textbooks being read by half a million Palestinian children, the only solution available is victory via resistance, jihad, radical Islamism and defeating Israel once and for all.


Comparing the work of both agencies highlights three central differences. The first is how UNRWA and UNHCR define refugees:

UNHCR does not automatically grant refugee status to descendants of refugees, and may weigh the revocation of refugee status in light of socio-economic considerations, the acquisition of citizenship in another country, and involvement in crimes against humanity or war crimes.

UNRWA, however:

adds some 10,000 new fifth and sixth generation refugees to its lists per month; recognizes some two million Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent as Palestinian refugees; and grants refugee status to convicted terrorists.

The second difference concerns the agencies’ operational and budgetary infrastructure – with UNRWA employing nearly 30,000 employees (the clear majority of whom are Palestinian) to care for 5.6 million Palestinian refugees; and UNHCR employing 9,300 people (the clear majority of whom are nationals of host countries) to address the needs of 39 million refugees and displaced persons.

In addition, the budget allocated to each Palestinian refugee under the auspices of UNRWA is 40 percent higher than the budget allocated to refugees under UNHCR auspices.

The third difference concerns the agencies’ respective objectives:

while UNHCR strives to resettle refugees under its care and thus reduce their numbers, UNRWA’s operational framework reinforces the paradigm that the situation of Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) can only be improved upon return to their ancestral homes. It also appears that in Gaza, UNRWA facilities have been used by Hamas to stockpile weapons and launch rockets on Israeli population centers.

United States contributions to UNRWA exceeded those of any other country, and were three times the sum contributed by the European Union. One tangible manifestation of the US budgetary cutback to date is UNRWA‘s warning that while half a million Palestinian students in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have returned to the 700 UNRWA-operated schools after the summer break, the current budget reportedly does not suffice to keep the schools open past the current month.

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UNhappy with UNwra. UNRWA employees in Gaza protest funding cuts

Implications of Pullout

President Trump’s aims with the cessation of funds to UNRWA include two non-mutually exclusive alternatives.

The first is consistent with the President’s “America First” policy and the desire to see other governments help cover UNRWA’s costs. Should US cuts indeed be covered by other players, such a scenario is unlikely to harbor change in UNRWA‘s mandate and performance, other than a potential decrease in the scope of the organization’s activities and an increase in its beneficiaries’ sense of insecurity.

The second alternative is that the current administration wants to see UNRWA reformed or completely dismantled. Such a scenario may be motivated by an American desire to pressure the Palestinians to reverse their decision not to cooperate with Trump’s Middle East team, which followed the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. It could also be part of a larger move to prepare Israelis and Palestinians for the President’s ultimate peace deal – which continues to hover above the region yet whose details and announcement date remain unknown. Either way, should such a scenario play out, the US has already emphasized that it will intensify dialogue with the UN and relevant players regarding new models to address the issue of Palestinian refugees.

To Perpetuate or Diffuse the Conflict?

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken against UNRWA and supports the American policy, Israel’s security establishment has reacted to the US move with concern. UNRWA provides an essential humanitarian lifeline to Gazans; is an instrumental stabilizing force; provides Israel with an important point of contact bypassing Hamas; and enables Israel’s security apparatus to monitor the entrance of construction and dual-use substances into Gaza.

However, the security establishment’s concerns, legitimate as they are, serve short-term interests.

UNRWA in its current format is designed to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee status and cultivate the next generation of Palestinians on the ethos of returning to their ancestral homes in Israel. While dismantling UNRWA will not change the Palestinian narrative, prolonging the agency’s current operational framework sends a message that does not help narrow conceptual gaps between the sides.

In any case, the dire humanitarian situation on the ground, particularly in Gaza, demands that alternatives to UNRWA be devised if and when it is dismantled. Despite anticipated antagonism from certain players in the international community, and the pledges of some states to fill the UNRWA budget vacuum, the current situation could be leveraged to create a better alternative. At the very least, several guidelines could help contain the potential damage.

Defining a Refugee

First, there should be new criteria for determining who are Palestinian refugees. Palestinians residing in Gaza and the West Bank in areas that presumably would be part of a future Palestinian state, as well as Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship can no longer be accounted for as refugees. As such, humanitarian aid to Palestinians living in these areas should be granted depending on each person’s actual needs, and not as a product of one’s refugee status.

Second, funds for Palestinians in these areas should be channeled to the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government. The original Palestinian refugees in Syria and in Lebanon – who have not been granted citizenship in these states and have not been able to become integrated into the general society – should be transferred to the care of UNHCR. This will improve their chances of bettering, rather than prolonging their dire situation, and will simultaneously help deflate the narrative that millions of Palestinians will one day return to live in Israel.

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School for Scandal. An UNWRA school were rockets ‘Destination Israel’ were stored.

Third, a centralized UNRWA should be replaced gradually by different modular agencies: UNHCR in Lebanon and Syria; organizations under the official Jordanian and Palestinian leaderships in Jordan and the West Bank, respectively; and an alternative humanitarian organization in Gaza. Such a move should be complemented by political and economic initiatives to neutralize antagonism and increase the likelihood of leveraging the single step into a comprehensive political process.

The US decision to cease funding UNRWA is historic. Although the Palestinians view such a step as a serious blow, if it is presented as a necessary step on the path to Palestinian statehood, it has the potential to harbor long term, positive implications. While Israel should certainly prepare for negative scenarios that such a policy move may generate in the near term, it is unwise to cling to the current paradigm that distances the Palestinian leadership’s pragmatic and ethical responsibility for rehabilitating and resettling Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian territories. With serious Israeli, American, and international incentives and policy initiatives, the US decision to cease funding UNRWA can serve as a wake-up call to the Palestinian leadership and potentially inject new life into the Israeli-Palestinian process.



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Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky

Research Fellow

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Kobi Michael

Senior Research Fellow


Feature picture credit: AP

Cashing in on Terror

By Rolene Marks

A perverted “pay for slay” scheme sponsors environment of terror.

It takes a lot to fell a lion. Several weeks ago, a 17 year old terrorist felled one of Israel and the Jewish world’s most recognized activists, the Lion of Zion, Ari Fuld.  Ari Fuld, was 45 years old, a father of four, slain while he shopped in a nearby supermarket. Mortally wounded from the stab wound in his back that hit a major artery, Fuld managed to chase and shoot his murderer before succumbing to his wounds.

The Lion of Zion, who roared his support for Israel across social media and inspired legions of activists was no more.

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Lion of Zion. Ari Fuld at the Western Wall, Photo, FB

Teenage Terrorists

Teenage terrorists are sadly, not a new or unusual phenomenon. Over the last two years this has been a common occurrence. Motivated by a growing hatred that is indoctrinated into them from baby-hood, these killers have claimed many innocent lives.

It is not just the steady diet of hatred that is consumed but a whole industry has grown around terrorism. It even has a fancy name that rhymes – “pay for slay”. In a nutshell, there is a scale “of benefits” that determine how much of a monthly stipend the family of a terrorist receive.

If you kill a Jew AND get killed then  – jackpot – you get the most cash. If you stab a Jew and kill him/her but are merely wounded then second prize, a lot less money.

It is money for jam for aspiring terrorists – and this comes with an instructional “how to stab for maximum casualties” videos.

The “pay for slay” industry is growing so much that the Palestinian Authority even has a name for the millions of dollars in supposed aid that they have re-budgeted to pay their young terrorists – The Martyr’s Fund.

Death Dollars

Foreign aid that countries earnestly donate to the Palestinians with the hope that it will go towards improving the lives of Palestinians is re-routed to the Martyr’s Fund to support this “pay for slay” economy. This is a rough breakdown of how the economy of terror funds are allocated according to an expose published in the Washington Post:

The Washington Post’s analysis showed that in 2017, $160 million was paid to 13,000 beneficiaries of “prisoner payments” ($12,307 per person) and $183 million was paid to 33,700 families in about in “martyr payments” ($5,430 per family), of which:

  • $36 million is estimated to be paid to prisoners serving sentences of >20 years
  • $10 million is paid to former members of the security forces
  • $1 million is estimated to be paid to families of the 200 suicide bombers
  • $10 million is paid to the families of the Palestinians with life terms, lengthy sentences and in the security forces
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Pay to Slay. The PA paid almost $300,000 to Muslim terrorists behind the Sbarro restaurant massacre in Jerusalem with the family of Izz al-Din Al-Masri receiving $50,124 as a reward for his suicide bombing. The dead Israelis included seven children.

Economy of Death

Stipends are paid to families of both prisoners and Palestinians killed in political demonstrations that turn violent where protesters are killed by non-lethal riot control methods (such as being hit by a tear gas canister) and to individuals imprisoned for “common crimes”. The fund also pays $106 a month in “canteen money” to all imprisoned Palestinians, including those imprisoned for non-political crimes such as car theft and drug dealing, for prisoners to spend in the prison canteen. This must be where Marwan Barghouti got his money for his chocolate he was eating during his hunger strike…

Families of individuals killed by Israeli security forces are paid stipends of about $800 to $1,000 per month. The families of convicted Palestinians serving time in Israeli prisons receive $3,000 or higher per month.

Yossi Kuperwasser, an analyst with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, estimated that in 2017 half of the $693 million that the Palestinian Authority receives as foreign aid, $345 million, was paid out as stipends to convicted terrorists and their families

How many schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that would be beneficial could be built with this money? Asking for a friend….

Instead, this money continues to fuel terror. Incitement to hate and kill Jews is manifesting itself in these ongoing spates of stabbings and shootings perpetrated by teenage terrorists.

Incitement of hatred that motivates children to become stealthy killers and not nation builders falls under the remit of child abuse and the international community is starting to take notice.  The United States has started to cut funding dramatically. On 23 March 2018, U.S. President, Donald Trump, signed the Taylor Force Act (named for victim of terror, Taylor Force) into law, which will cut about a third of US foreign aid payments to the Palestinian Authority. This is on the provision that the PA ceases making payment of stipends to terrorists and their surviving families and Australia has followed suit. In July 2018, Australia stopped the A$10M (US$7.5M) in funding that had been sent to the PA via the World Bank, and have decided to send it instead to the UN Humanitarian Fund for the Palestinian Territories. The reason given was that Australia did not want the PA to use the funds to assist Palestinians convicted of politically motivated violence. Other governments are starting to review their funding as well.

The Lion of Zion may have been silenced but in his memory and for those who have been slain our voices will not be. We say loud and clear the jig is up – perpetuating a cycle of violence and terror is no longer going to be profitable.

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It’s All About The Money. Palestinian contribution to the future – Pay to Slay


Feature picture credit: Yishai Fleisher