WASHINGTON, D.C. – UN Watch, a non-governmental organization, fact-checked a recent letter from U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) falsely claiming they have safeguards in place to prevent antisemitism or support for terrorism within the organization. UNRWA’s letter was in response to a call from U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and 11 Republican Senators urging Schumer to reject President Biden’s request for up to $9 billion in humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
Last month, Senator Blackburn (R-Tenn.) introduced legislation to halt all funding for the UNRWA.
“It is clear that U.S. aid intended for the Palestinian people has repeatedly ended up in the hands of terrorists,” said Senator Blackburn. “Since taking office, President Biden has sent the UNRWA over $730 million, despite knowing there would be a high risk of Hamas benefiting from American taxpayers. UNRWA teachers and educational materials call for the murder of Jews, and the Biden administration should immediately halt all funding for the agency. The U.S. government should not be funding terrorists.”
Fact Checking UNRWA Claims About Teachers and Education
In a November 2, 2023 letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, UNRWA insisted that it has checks in place to ensure its staff are not affiliated with terrorists and that its educational materials are in compliance with UNESCO standards. UN Watch fact-checked these claims below.
UNRWA Claim 1:
“UNRWA has a stringent staff conduct framework in place to ensure that staff members do not affiliate themselves, and by extension, UNRWA, with any other groups. All UNRWA staff, Palestine refugees, and contractors, vendors, and non-state donors are screened against the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List.”
UN Watch Fact Check: False
UNRWA claims that it ensures its members do not affiliate with “any other groups.” To support this claim, it states that it checks all staff, refugees, contractors, vendors, and non-state donors against the UN Security Council Sanctions List. However, the Security Council Sanctions List does not include Hamas.
Not surprisingly, UNRWA staff have been found to be affiliated with Hamas. For example, in February 2017, UNRWA suspended school principal and Chairman of the UNRWA Gaza workers’ union Suhail al-Hindi, after it received information that al-Hindi had just been elected to the Hamas Politburo. UNRWA reportedly took issue with the fact that he had been elected to political office, but not that he was a member of Hamas. At the time, UNRWA engineer Muhammad al-Jamassi was also elected to the Hamas Politburo, but it is not known whether UNRWA took any action regarding him. Furthermore, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Hamas has controlled the UNRWA Gaza staff union since 2009 and many UNRWA employees are affiliated with Hamas. UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai confirmed to Foreign Policy in 2021 that UNRWA takes action only when its employees are found to hold a political position with Hamas.
In addition, just looking at whether a staff person formally affiliates with a terrorist group is not sufficient. In the case of UNRWA, some staff that may not affiliate with Hamas have nonetheless publicly endorsed Hamas and its terrorist activity on Facebook. Indeed, our latest report found ten UNRWA employees who posted praise, support, and justification for Hamas’ barbaric October 7th slaughter and hostage-taking, including one staff-member whose nephew was among the terrorists that committed atrocities that day.
Furthermore, UNRWA facilities have been exploited by Hamas. For example, Hamas is known to have stored rockets in and built tunnels underneath UNRWA facilities, even as recently as December 2022. The UN itself found that during the summer 2014 Gaza war, Hamas had fired rockets from UNRWA schools.
Finally, UNRWA is susceptible to pressure from Hamas. In May 2021, UNRWA was forced to re-assign its Gaza Director, Mathias Schmale, after he had admitted in a television interview that the Israeli strikes were “very precise,” i.e., not targeting civilians, and Hamas declared him persona non grata in Gaza. Likewise, in April 2023, UNRWA bowed to pressure, including from Hamas, to reinstate a teacher who had been suspended for endorsing terrorism on Facebook.
UNRWA Claim 2:
“UNRWA devotes considerable time and resources to ensuring its educational curriculum reflects UN values and UNESCO best practices. UNRWA reviews all host country textbooks to ensure consistency with UN positions, educational appropriateness, and adherence to UNESCO standards. To address the identified issues, the Agency utilizes a Critical Thinking Approach (CTA) to empower teachers to address the specific identified issues of concern in a way consistent with UN values.”
UN Watch Fact Check: False
UNRWA uses Palestinian Authority textbooks which, according to numerous studies, as well as the U.S., EU, and UN Anti-Racism Committee, contain antisemitism and terrorist incitement. UNRWA admits that it cannot alter these PA textbooks. Instead it claims that it trains its teachers to identify the material that should not be taught and prepares complementary materials.
However, a 2019 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that UNRWA had not trained teachers on the complementary materials or distributed them in the classroom. One of the reasons for this was “staff refusal to attend training and workshops.” Moreover, when UNRWA teachers created their own supplementary material during coronavirus, the materials were found to be rife with incitement to violence and hatred and support for terrorism, such as glorifying the infamous terrorist Dalal Mughrabi. At the time, UNRWA claimed that the material had been distributed “mistakenly” and that it was put together in a “rush” by UNRWA teachers who “are refugees themselves,” suggesting that because of their refugee status the teachers might not have been aware of the problematic nature of the material. By blaming the “mistake” on the teachers, UNRWA unwittingly acknowledged that the teachers themselves are part of the problem, as they apparently are incapable of determining what educational content goes against UN values and should not be taught.
Following this incident, UNRWA insisted that the “mistake” had been rectified. Yet, a July 2022 report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) found that institutional UNRWA-branded and UNRWA-produced school materials labeled for use in 2022 contained content encouraging jihad, violence, and martyrdom, as well promoting antisemitism, conflict discourse, hate, and intolerance. A March 2023, joint report by UN Watch and IMPACT-se provided 25 examples from 10 different UNRWA schools of hateful educational content. These examples included: teaching students to admire the terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, the infamous terrorist who participated in the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre, contradicting repeated claims by UNRWA that it does not teach about her; encouraging martyrdom by teaching students that it is laudable to sacrifice oneself for Palestine; demonizing Israel as a thieving destroyer of Palestinian history, and Israeli soldiers as callous killers; denying the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel by repeatedly teaching that “Palestine” includes all Israeli territory, again contradicting UNRWA’s own representations that it does not do this; and spreading modern-day antisemitic libels about Israel causing cancer among Palestinians.
Thus, contrary to UNRWA’s claims, incitement to antisemitic hate or violence in UNRWA education is a deeply rooted systemic problem and UNRWA’s internal auditing mechanisms are not capable of addressing the issue.