Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

A dozen United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) workers killed, raped and kidnapped on October 7, and one in four Gazan men who work for UNRWA have ties to Hamas. What can you say to that?

This is a segment from The “Gaza of Good & Evil” Edition.


And now it is time for our first discussion.

So Allison, three out of four men working for UNRWA do not have ties with Hamas.

Maybe we should be looking at the glass three quarters full.

Always the optimist, Noah.

The lead of an article in the Wall Street Journal this week went like this.

At least 12 employees of the UN’s Palestinian Refugee Agency had connections to Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel, and around 10% of all its Gaza staff have ties to Islamist militant groups, according to intelligence reports reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

Depending on who you are and what you already think about the UN, and especially the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, that sentence will either come as a great surprise or as no surprise at all.

Oddly for some of us, it seems to have come as both.

Among the 12 UNRWA workers who participated directly in the October 7th attacks, at least six were among the 3,000 or so Hamas people who breached the border and rushed into Israel, taking part directly in the attacks, murders, rapes, and kidnappings.

The others coordinated logistics for the attacks, got and distributed guns, grenades, rockets, explosives, and helped transport and hide hostages once they got to Gaza.

Of the 12, seven were teachers in elementary school or high school.

The intelligence reports that lay all this out are based mostly on location data collected from the cell phones the UN workers carried, sometimes cross-verified with video collected on the day and with information gathered in the interrogation of captured Hamas fighters.

The image of elementary school teachers working for the United Nations taking part in murders and rapes is pretty bad.

Defenders of UNRWA were quick to point out, however, that the organization employs 12,000 people in Gaza, meaning that only 1/10 of 1% of all the people who work for UNRWA in Gaza committed atrocities.

Any fraction of any percent is unacceptable, many defenders of the organization, like UN Secretary Antonio Guterres said, but so small a number should not lead to the entire operation being penalized.

Guterres said that of the 12, one is dead, a UN social worker who absconded with the body of a dead IDF soldier.

Nine have been fired, and the fate of the other two is being investigated.

In a statement on Twitter, the UN said that, quote, “The humanitarian needs of the desperate populations “UNRWA serves must be met.”

UNRWA Commissioner General Philip Lazzarini said, quote, “It is immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency “and an entire community it serves “because of allegations of criminal acts “against some individuals.”

The point can be debated and is being debated, but the case becomes harder to make in light of the second thing reported in the journal article, that one in 10 of Gazan employees of UNRWA, about 1,200 altogether, have ties to Hamas and/or Islamic Jihad.

The reports also say that 23%, about one in four male employees of UNRWA in Gaza have links to Hamas, mostly active and operative lines.

These facts led one, quote, “Senior Israeli official,” quoted in the article to conclude that, “UNRWA’s problem is not just a few bad apples “involved in the October 7th massacre.

“The institution as a whole is a haven “for Hamas’s radical ideology.”

If this is true, it is especially disturbing because, as many have observed, with a budget of over a billion dollars a year, control over half the schools in the Gaza Strip, as well as management of a good deal of social services, UNRWA is probably the most important and influential organization in Gaza after Hamas itself.

In light of this, at least 17 contributors have frozen their funding for UNRWA.

The US, Germany, EU, Japan, France, Switzerland, Canada, UK, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Austria, Finland, New Zealand, Iceland, Romania, and Estonia.

In light of this, there are some in Israel, like Yisrael Hayom diplomatic reporter Ariel Kahana, who argue that this is an opportunity to get UNRWA replaced by an alternative agency.

This is the first opportunity in 75 years to do this.

We must not pass it up.

In contrast, star Haaretz political analyst, friend of the podcast Anshel Pfeffer writes that, quote, “UNRWA is riddled with Hamas, “but Israel has no alternative.”

Pfeffer writes, quote, “There’s one government “that continues to work very closely with UNRWA “on a daily basis, facilitating its work in Gaza, Israel.

“Israel is not about to suspend its ties to UNRWA.

“It certainly can’t do that “after the International Court of Justice ruling on Friday “warning Israel that denying humanitarian assistance “to Gaza could be constituted an act of genocide.

“Unless the Israel Defense Force decides “it wants to distribute the food, water, “and medical supplies to over two million Palestinians “in Gaza itself, it needs UNRWA to do it.

“Until Israeli policy changes, “and unless Israel is willing to feed Gaza itself, “it has no alternative to UNRWA.”

So, Don, we got some questions here.

Were you surprised to learn that UNRWA employees were killing people in Bari?

Were you surprised that one in 10 UNRWA employees and one in four of the men are mobbed up with Hamas?

Should we be surprised at all?

And whether we’re surprised or not, should these revelations be the end of UNRWA as we know it?

And is that even possible? – Well, yes, I was surprised that UNRWA employees actively took part in mass murder, kidnappings, and keeping hostages prisoners, and who knows what else.

You’d think that employees of a UN organization so central to Palestinian life in Gaza would have more sense than endangering their organization by taking part directly in atrocities.

I’m surprised by a lot of things.

I’m surprised by UNRWA’s global leadership, that they’re not more contrite, they should be hanging their heads in shame instead of going on the offensive, that no UNRWA leaders have been fired or forced to resign.

I mean, it’s appalling.

Can you imagine any other civilian organization on earth where members, employees, took part in mass murder and the head of the organization wasn’t forced to resign?

I mean, it’s almost inconceivable, but the UN leadership we know is very embarrassing.

They fired the people who took part in the attack.

Am I supposed to think that’s an appropriate response?

And they’ll refer them to criminal prosecution if they think they are guilty.

Criminal prosecution by– – By Hamas. – By Hamas, the International Court of Justice.

I mean, they spout such nonsense, it’s just mind-boggling.

So UNRWA’s response is bizarre, but we understand they’re committed to their mission of helping very desperate people, and those people now are more desperate than ever.

I mean, we’re experiencing freezing winter rains.

They’re claiming people are on the verge of starvation with diseases spreading or likely to spread.

So I get that part of it.

I get that they don’t want to shut the agency down.

Now, the other question is, I’m not surprised UNRWA is tied up with Hamas because Hamas has been running Gaza for 17 years, and UNRWA, as you said, is the second most important organizational entity in Gaza after Hamas.

So in the management of day-to-day life of provision of basic needs and services, including education, how could they not work with Hamas?

How could they not be tied up with Hamas?

Look, I mean, I think it’s important for listeners to understand the 12,000 employees you mentioned, these are not European do-gooders.

This is not a peacekeeping force from another country.

By and large, these are Palestinians.

And that’s actually good practice in the nonprofit world to hire local people. – I think most of them are teachers, in fact.

I mean, I think that the UN runs a bunch of the schools in Gaza. – Yeah, for sure, for sure.

I don’t know what the breakdown is, but yes, many are teachers, and some of the people who took part were teachers, which is a mind-boggling concept on itself.

But when you work with disadvantaged populations, which I think we could agree Gazans fit into that category, it’s considered best practice to hire local people because of the added value of empowering them through professional training, work experience, leadership development, all of that.

So again, if Hamas runs Gaza and you’re hiring lots of local people, they’re gonna include Hamas supporters, Hamas activists, members.

I mean, I don’t know if UNRWA does any screening where they hire people, or if their hiring guidelines would rule out people who are openly supportive or even involved or members of Hamas.

I don’t know, I doubt it.

I suppose that should be investigated.

And you did ask whether UNRWA should be closed.

So this is a bigger question.

We have talked about this before on the show.

I think most of us agree UNRWA should never have been established.

In the first place, it’s the only agency in the UN system that handles one target population.

Everyone else is handled by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees and the Commission, and there’s no reason that the Palestinians don’t fall into that category.

As Brett Stevens wrote, who I find myself increasingly agreeing with, which is a little bit disturbing, but Brett Stevens wrote in the New York Times yesterday, you know, this is the only agency whose central purpose is to perpetuate grievance and conflict.

It should be abolished.

That’s a quote from Brett Stevens, not from me.

And what that means is that by extending the status of refugees to all descendants of Palestinians, you are doing something that doesn’t happen to any other refugee group on Earth.

You don’t resettle them.

Now, I mean, that’s a long, complicated political discussion ’cause Arab countries didn’t wanna resettle them, didn’t wanna take them in, and they wanna perpetuate the idea that they’re gonna come back.

But it essentially means that you have a UN agency committed to keeping the idea alive that Palestinians are gonna all return to their homes, which would mean Israel would have to disappear ’cause they can’t return to the same place.

I mean, by parallel, it would mean, you know, that I would be a Ukrainian, Austrian, or Polish refugee because all of my grandparents were refugees from those countries, and all of them left because of persecution.

So, you know, if you think about it, it’s just pretty crazy.

Does it surprise us that UNRWA schools teach hatred of Israel?

I don’t, you know, know.

I don’t think you need a school curriculum for Palestinians or Gazans to have reasons to hate Israel.

But again, some of what they’re teaching is simply appalling.

Can they be shut down?

No, they can’t be shut down ’cause there’s nobody else to do the job.

It’s what you said.

I mean, Israel– – The job right now of giving humanitarian aid during this war. – Or providing all the services that UNRWA provides when they’re not in a war.

As you said, they run the schools.

I’m sure they run a lot of other social services.

There’s nobody else who can do that.

If Israel’s not gonna do it, the long-term solution is probably to set up something else, to set up some other agency, and an agency that’s run on higher standards than what the UN apparently does.

So it’s, but you know, a new Palestinian entity, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

That’s not gonna provide what they need tomorrow.

So we don’t have a choice right now, but UNRWA should be, you know, they should be on probation.

And the world, I mean, the US and the countries who cut their funding are already backing off.

So I don’t know how this seriously is gonna play off.

It’s like they’ve made their statement, and I think they’re trying to retreat from it. – Well, I think that was fantastic, Don.

And you said nothing that I don’t agree with entirely, though I can’t exactly put together all the different pieces of what you’re saying.

To me also, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that a bunch of the 12,000 Gazans who work for UNRWA support Hamas, because that’s, I guess, what you would expect.

And UNRWA does seem to me to be an organization that has been utterly heedless of some broader morality, just has gone native, has gone local about, and is basically a Gazan organization in a way.

And after almost 20 years, after 18 years or whatever it’s been of working together with Hamas, then I think that it clearly seems to be Hamasified in some way, and that that’s completely unacceptable.

So I don’t know what it adds up to.

Maybe it adds up to saying by the year 2025, then UNRWA will be disbanded, and then you have 18 months or whatever it is to come up with some international alternative or some Palestinian alternative, whatever happens.

But maybe that’s the decision that needs to be made.

But it does seem to me that the people who are calling for it to be disbanded immediately, for them to just pack up and leave, it’s hard to figure out exactly what would happen then.

Allison, what do you think? – Well, for UNRWA to pack up and leave or for the United Nations to pack up and leave?

Because UNRWA is the UN-sponsored agency that all of this aid to Palestinians and all of these services to Palestinians are being provided through and administered by.

So are you saying, okay, we don’t want UNRWA in Gaza again, and saying, we don’t want this level of aid and assistance to the Palestinians to be provided by the UN anymore in Gaza, or we’re fine with all the stuff that they’re giving them, we just want it with a different name and to be run better?

That’s the question. – I’m not sure that I entirely see the difference between these two alternatives.

What are you saying? – No, if it’s not UNRWA, okay, so we’re gonna be taken over by the High Commissioner of Refugees and become this department. – Or no, no, we’re not.

It should not, they shouldn’t be treated as refugees.

I mean, you can set up aid organizations, there are aid organizations all over the planet that don’t have to do with being refugees. – So it’s the UN though, so okay, so this is the UN subcommittee of this department and we’re providing help to the refugees through the United Nations. – No, no, I think that’s a good question. – Are you, I mean, ’cause this is the United Nations, you know, for generations, decades, cooperating with whoever is in charge in Gaza in order to provide XYZQ.

Personally, not shocked that Hamas is in charge, you know, ruling with this iron fist in Gaza, you know, taking advantage of any resources, help, assistance that goes into Gaza, making sure it’s in charge, and look, the UN’s pouring funds and help and assistance in schools, et cetera, and wow, Hamas is involved with UNRWA there, obviously, right? – Look, I mean, what it means when you say the UN is doing it is that it’s member nations of the UN, specific member nations are contributing sums of money from the tens of millions to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The United States is the largest contributor to UNRWA.

And maybe what we need is something that’s not run by the United Nations.

I mean, those countries could still donate if they felt it was, you know, they did their due diligence and felt that the organization was meeting, it was doing what it promised to do.

I mean, I think it has a billion dollar budget, which is not that much money when you’re talking about this size population.

It sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t really if you break it down.

And you provide social services in a different way.

That’s, again, that can’t be a short-term solution, but UNRWA, I think, should be, you know, have a red card and they should be on the way out.

I don’t think this organization contributes in a constructive way to the future of the Palestinians themselves or to the prospects for peace.

So I think, you know, a lot of the criticism is well taken, but Israel does not want to take over responsibility for doing this.

That seems very clear.

We have no interest in, I mean, there are some people who want to run Gaza and empty it out of its residents, but that’s not where any of us stand.

And I don’t think that’s where the, I do believe that is not at all the view of the vast, vast majority of Israelis. – But if we don’t run the world and the only entity in the world that’s willing to step up and do this for Gazans is the United Nations, is it our job to say, “Oops, sorry, you’re not kosher.

You can’t go in there and do it.” – I think that- – I think it’s America’s job. – I mean, first of all, I don’t know why it would necessarily only be the United Nations who would be willing to do it.

I think that you could have, you know, the kinds of coalitions that people have talked about that include a lot of countries from the Middle East as well in a more active way is possible.

But even if it is the United Nations, what you need is a new group that’s run by people who find outrageous the idea that some of their employees would go killing and raping on the one hand, and who find outrageous the fact that so much of the aid that has gone into Gaza over the past years has gone into building this billions and billions and billions of dollars of military underground infrastructure for Hamas.

I think that the fact that you don’t hear criticism of Gaza coming from the international, of the Gazan government, which is Hamas, coming from the international organization responsible for bringing aid is a little bit, is something that everyone around the world in Israel, but also outside of Israel should say, “Well, that’s not acceptable.” – I don’t like it, but I’m not at all surprised by it.

And I think this is part of a larger discussion of quote unquote, ridding Gaza of Hamas.

You know, taking, can you, Hamas is an idea and ideology and not only things.

So if you wanna have massive aid agencies with tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, and like Don said, you wanna hire locals, can you, you know, brain select, you know, like, I don’t know, like somehow look into the minds of the people that you’re hiring and make sure that they don’t have the right or wrong ideology.

And obviously until a few months ago, we couldn’t imagine this ideology becoming reality the way that it did on October 7th. – But an aid organization by definition, that’s facing a crisis, catastrophe situation, which is what’s happening right now, is not gonna pack up and go or try to put things in perspective.

They’re trying to find a solution for a dire situation that they are trying to manage as best they can.

So we understand where they’re coming from too. – Yeah, absolutely.

It’s just the problem that we’re addressing is a problem that arose before October 7th. – Yeah, and when things, and when there’s a calmer time, it should be addressed. – Will there be a calmer time though?

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