A few days ago, Development Minister Svenja Schulze met the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in Jordan. The conversation in the capital Amman discussed, among other things, Germany’s suspended payments to the organization.
The federal government temporarily stopped its aid payments for the Palestinian territories and for Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th.
Despite strict criteria already in place, a thorough review of all projects was announced. The aim was to ensure that neither the spread of anti-Semitic thought patterns nor supporters of Hamas were promoted.
Because UNRWA, advertised as “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East”, is not without controversy.
UNRWA has around 30,000 employees
It has existed since 1949 and was originally intended to support Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homeland by the Arab-Israeli conflict. She started work in May 1950.
Loud “Federal Center for Civic Education” (bpb) was the UNRWA as an international actor “which should ensure humanitarian care for all refugees, create job prospects and coordinate measures together with the affected Arab states”.
Its fields of activity are correspondingly diverse: education, social services, humanitarian aid, but also small loans and medical care are among the areas in which UNRWA is involved.
The aid organization operates in various countries: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. There are currently around six million people registered as Palestine refugees with UNRWA.
UNRWA has almost 30,000 employees
According to “bpb”, the fact that there are so many is due, among other things, to a rather vague definition of the term refugee. In 1949, every person who declared that they were in need of help and had fled Palestine received help. Today the definition is narrower.
According to UNRWA, Palestine refugees are people “who were permanent residents of historic Palestine between June 1, 1946 and May 15, 1948, and who lost both their homes and their livelihoods as a result of the Middle East conflict.”
Refugee status is passed down to descendants through the paternal line. The organization’s website reads: “The descendants of male Palestinian refugees, including adopted children, can also register.”
There has been repeated criticism of this in the past. UNRWA is accused of artificially increasing the number of Palestine refugees in this way. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even called the aid organization a “refugee stabilization agency” and called for its dissolution.
UNRWA was already being criticized before the war with Israel
UNRWA responded that recognized refugees would still be “Palestine refugees and would retain their rights under UN Resolution 194 as long as there is no just and lasting solution to their plight.”
But there are other points of criticism about the aid organization. Because UNRWA is repeatedly said to have connections to Hamas. The terrorist organization responsible for the attacks from the Gaza Strip.
The non-governmental organization “UN Watch” published a report according to which UNRWA uses teachers who glorify Hamas’ terror on the Internet.
Matthew Levitt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank explained “Daily News” also that Hamas is using the UN facilities for its own purposes.
“They store their rockets in schools – not once, not twice. They just do it. Just like they manipulate textbooks. Which then contain formulas of hatred – us against them,” said the expert. In some books, attacks on Israelis are referred to as “barbecues.”
Germany is the largest donor after the USA
Because Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip for more than 15 years, Western aid that is actually intended for civilians also benefits the militia. The terrorists would monitor “every business movement and also humanitarian business in the Gaza Strip,” says Levitt.
For UNRWA this means pressure to justify itself. After all, it is financed by numerous Western countries. Germany supported the aid organization with around 200 million euros last year and is considered the largest donor after the USA.
During her visit to Jordan, Development Minister Schulze said that they wanted to alleviate the suffering of the people in the Gaza Strip. For the current year, the federal government wants to provide UNRWA with a further 91 million euros to care for refugees in Palestine.
The money is primarily intended for drinking water deliveries, hygiene and sanitary facilities in emergency accommodation. But aid projects in neighboring countries such as Jordan should also be supported.
“We know every single person who works for us”
Schulze, who is aware of the criticism of UNRWA, emphasized during her visit: “The Palestinians are not Hamas, you have to differentiate.”
She also said that German-financed projects in the Palestinian territories would be strictly controlled.
UNRWA boss Lazzarini also assured: “We know every single person who works for us.” All employees of the aid organization are strictly screened to rule out connections to terrorist organizations. Around 30,000 people work for UNRWA.
Ultimately, one point should not be ignored in the debate about UNRWA. Richard Gowan from the think tank “Crisis Group” told the “Tagesschau” that the criticism of the organization was justified, but that there was no alternative to UNRWA.
“Commitment to continue helping the Palestinians”
“It is obvious that Hamas is exploiting some facilities. And the UN should defend itself against this every time. But we have to be realistic. Such large facilities can always easily be exploited somewhere.”
For many Palestinian civilians, UNRWA is the only economic and social safety net. In addition, Western countries would also help Afghanistan, even though the Taliban is in power there.
“I think there is an obligation to continue to help the Palestinians – even if they are ruled by Hamas,” said Gowan. Otherwise, in his opinion, a humanitarian collapse – and with it a radicalization of the youth – is only a matter of time.