Israel Crisis Update: Time for UNRWA to be Replaced?

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Israel Crisis Update: Time for UNRWA to be Replaced?

DATE: 16.00 – 17.00 UK, 21st March 2024

VENUE: Online Event

SPEAKER: Arsen Ostrovsky, Pierre Rehov, Asaf Romirowsky PhD

EVENT CHAIR: Barak Seener


Barak Seener 00:03

Hello, welcome to ‘Time for ‘UNRWA to be Replaced?’ another of our Henry Jackson Society Israel series that are dealing with the conflict in Gaza. Today we decided to address the very, very important issue about UNRWA. A UN agency, which Israel is claiming to be having co-opted Hamas or being co-opted by Hamas. 16 countries suspended recently $450,000,000, 14 staff members participated in October the seventh massacre, 14 staff members of UNRWA and in February, a Hamas data centre was found beneath UNRWA headquarters. Israel accuses Hamas of employing 450 individuals in Gaza who are members of Hamas or other terrorist groups and just very recently there was a UN review panel that claimed that UNRWA mechanisms ensure neutrality. And the question actually remains, how is this possible? When Gaza is an authoritarian environment, which will inevitably dominate any NGO that will be operating there? How is it even possible for any agency to maintain neutrality? We’re lucky today to have Arsen Ostrovsky who was a lawyer and CEO of the International Legal Forum, we have with us as well Pierre Rehov who is a French Israeli documentary filmmaker, director and novelist who has had direct experience documenting UNRWA’s activities in the region and Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, who is the Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. Dr. Romirowsky is also senior non-resident research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and is an affiliate professor at the University of Haifa. As I have just now read Dr. Romirowsky’s credentials last, perhaps you could go first.

Dr. Asaf Romirowsky 02:55

Sure, so first of all, thank you for the opportunity. It’s a pleasure to be here amongst friends and thank you, Barak, and for Henry Jackson for putting this forum together. So to answer your question, I mean, let me try to contextualise what we have here and the anomaly of UNRWA at large. So UNRWA’s integrity has been co-opted for years, it’s important to understand that UNRWA is uniquely defined as the sole refugee organisation devoted to Palestinian refugees. And to my mind, what we have here is a case study, something that I’ve written a great deal about, wrote a book about the topic which has been where the client has hijacked a service provider. It is what they call in business basically a concept of regulatory capture, the idea that you have today UNRWA is the largest employer of Palestinians at large to the tune of 30,000 all together and talking about between 13,000 in Gaza alone, and UNRWA is a case study where you have the narrative that has been basically becoming and transforming into a Palestinian propaganda machine has happened over a series of decades. To be historically honest about it, for the first decade of UNRAW’s existence UNRWA tried to maintain its mandate, that is to be a neutral agency, and to not be a propaganda arm for the Palestinians. However, UNRWA was created as an Article 22 agency by the General Assembly, Article 22 agencies are based on voluntary contributions. The Arab world told the UNRWA that we will indeed support you so long as you maintain refugee status of the Arab Palestinians, you will not try to resettle them into Arab countries, which is exactly why the refusal and the back and forth, and we can talk about that later. No Arab country with the exception of Jordan has offered the Arab Palestinian citizenship to remind them of the existence of the Nakba, how the Palestinians defined 1948-1949. And so the money came in conditioned on the fact that UNRWA would transform itself into a arm, a propaganda arm of the Palestinians, and they have basically violated every rule since. And not to mention the fact that they’ve been able to create a natural, so called natural expansion of Arab Palestinian refugees, by so called natural growth into what we have today in the millions of Arab Palestinians. Now, the neutrality or lack of neutrality of UNRWA, which is exactly what we saw, after October 7 is the fact that UNRWA has consistently refused to accept background checks. Actually, they refuse to accept any kind of security background checks on the United States, the Europeans and from the Israelis themselves. They’ve actually seen Hamas and other terrorist organisations as diversity. When it comes to their hiring, and firing practices, UNRWA officials have gone on record admitting that they’ve worked with Hamas, they use Hamas, Hamas as part of them. And so this is no surprise when you look at the reality when we found the fact that you had employees of UNRWA, who have actually been worked and co-opted and were actually involved in the barbaric attacks of October 7. Teachers and doctors and whatnot, it’s no surprise. Over the years UNRWA vehicles, UNRWA facilities have been used to transport suicide bombers, the terrorism has been part and parcel of the agenda at large, all under the so called guise of neutrality, which has been used and abused over the years. But that’s part of the reason of this lack of neutrality. Furthermore, as I said before, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s the fact that the majority of UNRWA employees are indeed Palestinians and the International element are indeed a minority in all of this. And those internationals who do not follow suit, you can have basically counted, maybe a handful that have aired UNRAW’s dirty laundry over the years are indeed removed and fired from the agency. There’s a total orthodoxy to maintain and sustain the issue. If you ask UNRWA and I’ve done this over the years on record, when UNRAW’s role would end, they would argue or say on the record that UNRAW’s role will end when there is resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, while at the same time they’re making that comment, they are the gatekeepers of the one single issue that I would argue that maintains and sustains the conflict to no end. UNRWA was created in 1949 as a temporary organisation, a temporary organisation that has no end. And if you look at the history of the peace process, there are, I’m sure everybody knows, there are three issues when it comes to land issues as far as disputed lands as far as Judea and Samaria, it is a shared capital in Jerusalem, and the so called right of return. The right of return is a demographic threat of the annihilation of the State of Israel, and the eradication by fallacious growth of numbers that UNRWA continues to maintain. And based on this right of return, which Palestinians believe to be a divine right, UNRWA maintains and sustains the existence of the so called right of return. And that’s how they’ve maintained their value and ability for all these seven plus decades later, that they are continuing to stay in business. But it is critical to understand that they see the totality of Palestinian society as refugees at large, including all members of Palestinian society, as well as terrorist groups, and they make no distinction between the individuals who are involved in Islamist terrorist activities and what they are supposed to do. So, that’s part of the unfortunate and horrific results that we saw on October 7, now that we’re seeing all the mounting evidence that Israel has been able to present, but also evidence that we’ve known before coming not only from the Israelis, but I would say in all the years that I’ve been involved in this evidence that we’ve known from the United States through congressional statements and testimonials that we’ve seen from the 50s and 60s until this very day understanding the anomaly of UNRWA and the problems that UNRWA presents the world at large. Long answer to a short question, but it’s important to frame it.

Barak Seener  10:15

Before I get to the follow up speaker, I just sort of wonder why Israel allowed the status quo to remain. Israel knew that it was meant to be a temporary organisation, according to what you’re saying. Israel knew for years that it had been co-opted by terrorists that dominate that area. Why did Israel have to wait until October the seventh for UNRWA members to participate in the atrocities? Why didn’t they take action and call UNRWA out beforehand? Many pro-Israel voices or NGOs have called out UNRWA, but I don’t see any action, decisive action by Israeli governments on this.


Dr. Asaf Romirowsky  11:10

It’s been a catch-22 and it’s been a very good question. You know, and I think that it’s a good question that you asked here. These rallies, while they don’t contribute monetarily to UNRWA, for years they didn’t advocate for dismantlement. And the problem has been that they’ve argued, and this is something we’ve seen through a lot of the good work that COGAT has done over the years, but also the challenges that they’ve had is the fact that they have argued that they need UNRWA as a vehicle to disseminate these services. And that’s been part of the problem that we saw, tension between the defence department apparatus inside of Israel and the politics involved with all of this. It took a long time for Israel to change its tone as far as dismantlement of UNRWA. I remember back in the years of disengagement, even prior to this engagement, there was a question about, well, why don’t we post a query? Why don’t they ask UNRWA to leave Gaza? Gaza is not going to be transferred over to the Palestinians. Why does UNRWA need to operate in Gaza? And ironically, this was back in the early 2000s. Apropos the reality that we’re seeing today on the ground, the official response that UNRWA gave at the time was, we need to help with the transferring of aid from northern Gaza to southern Gaza. And even generals within the military apparatus have argued, you know, even now, after the mounting evidence of October 7, that we don’t put so much of a stain on UNRWA, we may need to use them. That’s a problem. I would argue if you wanted to talk about what needs to happen in general, UNRWA is double dipping, if there’s going to be ever a functioning Palestinian Authority, all these individuals, and all the services that UNRWA provides should be services at the top of a functioning Palestinian Authority, as far as civil servants. But that’s not been the case. They’ve been double dipping, there are alternatives to UNRWA, UNRWA currently has a monopoly over all these services and Israel has refused over the years to kind of change that. Give credit where credit is due, it was our colleague and friend, [inaudible] who was able to get a letter out of the Defence Ministry a few years ago, to argue that if they propose a bill in the Knesset, and at the time she was in the Knesset, to dismantle UNRWA. The defence apparatus won’t go against her, so, there’s been a shift. Lawmakers in Israel are starting to make understanding and obviously the Prime Minister has made comments about UNRWA should long be out of business. But it’s taken a long time. Unfortunately, for years and years, the Israelis have indeed been part of the problem and now you’re seeing a kind of a slow, mature shift.

Barak Seener  14:18

Asif, thank you for that. Before I pass it on to Pierre, just one follow up statement. Which is Israel seems to be caught between a dynamic of having organisations or groups that are diametrically opposed to its existence that Israel seeks to co-opt in order to stabilise the situation, whether it be UNRWA or whether it be the Palestinian Authority or whether it be even the funding of Hamas because the rationale behind it was, it was to stabilise the situation, it invariably blows back. It’s an artificial form of security and an autocratic environment ultimately isn’t sustainable. You may want to follow up on that later. But I’d like to hand it over now to Pierre Rehov, you had direct experience in documenting UNRWA’s activities, and we all would be very fascinated to hear what you have seen on the ground.

Pierre Rehov  15:33

First of all, thank you for having me among you. I’m very proud of being part of this team at this point. Before I go straight to the point and answering your question, I have to explain a little bit of how it works in the Palestinian territories. Because as a reporter, it’s very difficult to work in the Palestinian territories, whether in Gaza or Judea, Samaria, it’s like wanting to work in North Korea, or in USSR, when it was still the Soviet Union, you always have a fixer who is taking care of you and telling you where to go, what to do, who to meet, etcetera. That’s the case for most reporters and journalists working over there, you are working in a very, very difficult environment, very dangerous environment. And at every moment, you bump into members of Hamas, member of Islamic Jihad, members of other terror organisations, and they are just part of the civil society. They are not wearing uniforms all the time. So, you don’t know where you were, you’re dealing with the difference between the way I’m handling my job and the way other journalists and reporters do is that first of all, I’m totally independent, I don’t work for the television channel. And being an independent producer, I do whatever I want with the money I have in the field, and I end up giving a little bit more money to my fixers to be able to have access to other things. Because in the present territories, absolutely everybody is corrupted. I’m going to give you a little example of how corruption is over there and then I’ll talk about UNRWA. I mean, 20 years ago, after the Mohammed [inaudible] case, if you remember, this little kid was filmed with his father and the whole world said Israeli soldiers had killed them, and a lot of people said the opposite. And I’m not going to get especially into this case, but it was a journalist who filmed the whole thing. He was a prescient journalist; his name was Tara Abdelhamid. Abdulhamid was actually the nephew of one of the founders of the Palestinian Authority, of the PLO, and I was playing my game when I went a couple of years later in Jenin and the game was to pretend that I was working for French television. I carry a French passport, that’s useful, especially in Palestinian territories, when you will find a guy you’re almost a friend and almost an ally, that having a French passport is a good shield over there. And I was talking to my fixer and pretending you know, playing the game, and I told him well, you know, Tara Abdulhamid was such a great journalist and such a great guide, and you got so many rewards around the planet for defending your cause, blah, blah, blah. And my teacher said, would you be interested? I said interested in what. Well, you know, we have a lot of kids, you know, one more, one less. I said what are you talking about, bottom line $10,000, you have that kid in Palestinian territories, at least, that was a prize 20 years ago. Okay, that’s one thing. Now, having been working over there, [Inaudible]. But I ended up visiting some UNRWA camps, some UNRWA schools, and also I met with one official who I’m sorry, I don’t remember his name. Because when I met with him, it was in Gaza, it was about 15 years ago and he gave me a lot of numbers. He was a fun guy, he was a little papillon, very elegant, very fancy, the French way, the French way that I don’t like, you know, and he was giving me numbers with some pride among the numbers he was giving me he told me, one specificity of UNRWA is that we have a provident fund which by then was roughly around $1 billion. And this provident fund was a security guarantee for the pension and retirement of the members of UNRWA, in Palestinian territories, and specifically, in this case, in Gaza. Basically you’re talking of an organisation that is sucking $1.4 billion a year from the international community at this point I think. When I was there, it was about half a million dollars, but I know that the budget tripled and the guys, you know are basically doing business at the level of international organisation and you are talking of guys who otherwise in Gaza will not make $200 a month. So in order to be part of UNRWA in order to work for UNRWA believe it or not, it’s not UNRWA who is going to decide you have to go to the local Hamas guy, you have to go to the local Islamic Jihad guy, you have to pay a baksheesh you have to give some money to be able to enter UNRWA. That’s at least what people were telling me when I was there in order to be to be hired by UNRWA you couldn’t just go to the office of UNRWA for employment, you would go there and they would ask you a few questions such as who is your family? What is your family? Who are you working for in the past? And they ask you for some recommendations, the recommendation is to make sure that you don’t belong to any terror organisations. But the reality is that it’s exactly the opposite. If you want to have a good job at UNRWA, it’s better to be a member of Hamas, it’s better to be a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and in most of the schools and I didn’t document it myself, even though I was there, and I talked to a few kids. But my good friend, David Bedein, that certainly all you all you guys know of David Bedein has documented a lot of UNRWA schools for years. And the teachers, the kids, the school textbooks, everything denies the very existence of Israel and on the top of that, they have this glorification of becoming a shaheed. So you go to a UNRWA school and instead of learning about geography, the real geography including Israel being part of the region, and the rest of the world, you’re going to learn that Israel never existed and the Jews don’t have the right to be there and you’re going to learn also that the highest level of pride for a Palestinian is to become one day a Shaheed, a martyr. In other words, to kill yourself or to get killed, the best way would be to be a suicide terrorist. Other ways would be to be just killed by Israeli Army and in some cases, if you die in a car accident, and you give them enough money to somebody, local Hamas member, you become a martyr as well. So the whole society is not only going around terrorism and fighting Israel and hating the Jews and wanting most of them to exterminate the Jews. But also, it is working as a gang, Al Capone would be very proud of the Hamas leaders. Corruption is at every level and the interconnection with UNRWA is very specific. Because as you said before, it’s impossible for any humanitarian organisation to be free of any of your actions when you when you are working in Gaza, or even in the person authority in the Palestinian Authority. I mean, within the Palestinian Authority, it is not a free place, there is no democracy around there, you are always in danger if you don’t do the right thing at every level. That’s also one of the reasons why you never get the truth out of the Palestinian territories. The reporters cannot tell the truth. They don’t want to tell the truth and they always listen to what the Palestinians have to say. Because if not, they just cannot go back there and we cannot work telling you how to do their job, because they are putting their lives at risk. Now, I have a very good friend who is Palestinian, some of you I’m sure know him Bassem Eid. Bassam Eid was born in East Jerusalem, but he was raised in the Shuafat refugee camp, which is an UNRWA refugee camp and he is certainly one of the most active people fighting against UNRWA that he hates totally because they really didn’t treat him and his family properly when he was a kid, but on top of that, he was telling me you know what, I live now in East Jerusalem and I’m travelling all around the planet, and I divorce my wife and I have kids who live abroad, and my brother lives abroad in Turkey and another brother who lives in America, etc, etc. But we are still all of us in the statistics of UNRWA. In other words, they are counted in UNRWA as people who deserve to receive money and vacations and all that. On the top of that, when some of the camps beside Jericho, there’s a refugee camp which is basically empty, there is maybe 100 people still living there, most of the inhabitants of this UNRWA camp moved to Jordan. But in Jordan they are counted by UNRWA as refugees and in this camp, they are also accounted for as refugees. We are talking 30,000 people, that’s how UNRWA works. So if you deduct all the corruption, all the fake numbers, you’re going to understand that this gang is connected to another gang. This time we are talking about Capone and Meyer Lansky.

Barak Seener  25:43

Pierre, I have to just interject very quickly. Before I follow up with our next speaker, I just wanted to ask you two questions. Beyond the whole culture of corruption, which naturally underpins autocratic environments, you never get an autocratic environment anywhere in the world historically, that is free of corruption, it fosters corruption. Have you ever witnessed any kind of militant or terrorist activities on the part of UNRWA staff members? Have you seen them even encouraging this culturally? That’s one point and the second point which echoes the question that I asked Asaf Romirowsky which is, Israel knew that the UNRWA textbooks that are financed by international taxpayers are fostering antisemitism and glorifying martyrdom. Why did Israel not already make demands there? Why, you know, you could extend that question to the Palestinian Authority? Why does it allow this culture of incitement to be perpetuated, whether it be formal media outlets or educational textbooks? Because it’s from that culture, that October 7th came forth from within?

Pierre Rehov  27:23

To answer your first question. The answer is more no than yes, I witnessed some discussions and subtle dispersion. I think if I witnessed anything of assault, I wouldn’t be alive anymore. They don’t do that openly they talk in a certain way. But we just witnessed a guy who is going out of school or hospital with the Hamas bandana or Hamas uniform, this I never saw it and that never happened. I heard about it when I was there, I heard people talking about it but in a very subtle way. It’s not like, yes, we are part of you know, that if it was a case, since I’m always trying to record whatever, whatever I see, I always had a hidden camera plus my regular camera, I would have been very happy to capture that and show it to the rest of the world. Now to answer your second question, I would say Israel is at fault at two levels. Level number one, and I think the answer is the same that I already heard a few minutes ago, which is Israel has to put in balance a very simple situation: If we get rid of UNRWA, who’s going to take care of the Palestinians? For the Israeli government, UNRWA in a way was the best of worst evil. And I guess they didn’t have at the very beginning when UNRWA was founded, we are talking of 1949, Israel was towards the end of the war. It was a very young country that was not organised enough to do what they would be capable of doing today. And they just let the situation stay like that for obvious reasons, they didn’t have the power to make pressure on the United Nations to replace UNRWA, and they didn’t want themselves to get involved and pressure UNRWA with their own forces. The second, I would say even worse fault, I would think about Israel is that while that 450,000 to 600,000 Arabs from Palestine became refugees in 1948, and we call it the Nakba. In the meantime, and between 1948 and 1974 about 1 million Jews were expelled from Arab countries. And it’s only very late, I made a film about it like 15-17 years ago and it was at the very, very beginning of Israel, trying to push this, this knowledge outside to tell people hey listen. Maybe there were 450,000 or 600,000 Palestinians who became refugees. But what about the Jews? We lost everything, including my family, I was born in Nigeria and the Arabs, a Muslim took absolutely everything from my family and my family had been living there for hundreds of years. On my father’s side, I think they even came from the first diaspora, we’re talking maybe 2,000 years, we’ve been living in Nigeria, and in 1961 we are just kicked out. Everything the entire family had was stolen from us. We moved to Paris that first of all, but we could have just moved to Israel? Did anybody give us one penny? No. Did anybody provide any of the Jewish families who lost their factories, their businesses, their banks, their houses when we arrived from Lebanon, from Syria from Libya. Nobody talked about, and one of the reasons why is because Israel didn’t try to make a case about it and at the same time, the Arabs, all Arab countries, with UNRWA decided that as long as Israel doesn’t cease to exist, the personal refugees will continue to be a cause.

Barak Seener  31:46

Thank you so much, Pierre, very much appreciate your personal experiences and insights. May I please pass it on to Arsen Ostrovsky, I’m really pleased to have you Arson, especially as you at the International Legal Forum, are also currently taking legal action against UNRWA. So it would be fascinating to hear what you’re currently doing and your expertise in the matter.

Arson Ostrovsky  32:18

Thank you, Barak. It’s great to be on here with first of all, Henry Jackson Society and especially so with Asif and Pierre, two people whom I admire tremendously, and are incredible warriors for a long time as well so thank you for this opportunity. You know, I did an interview recently, and someone, a prominent journalist asked me about UNRWA. And he said, this was in the wake of the revelations in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and last month and saying this is such a shock. You know I said with all due respect, you know, this is about as much a shock as it is to find out that the Pope is Catholic. This is not a shock for us, the gravity and extent of it might be a shock but this is something that all of us, certainly here, and many, many others have been yelling and screaming and warning for years, and years. So, this is not exactly breaking news in that sense, by the way, UNRWA itself as far back as 2004 when former Commissioner General Peter Hansen was asked about whether there were any connections to Hamas in 2004, that’s 20 years ago. He said, and I quote, ‘oh, I’m sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, but I don’t see that as a crime.’ Okay, so there’s no excuse, for 20 years we knew. Today effectively, I’m probably not going to add terribly much more to what my colleagues said but UNRWA has essentially become one giant Ponzi scheme. If UNRWA was a corporation, selling a product, it’s leadership would have been sacked and the company would have been disbanded. UNRWA was created in order to essentially resettle the board of Palestinian refugees. Since 1949, not a single Palestinian has been resettled. The entire organisation effectively serves as a drug because they are hooked on UNRWA and there is no incentive for them to act, there is no incentive for them to compromise. Instead, UNRWA perpetuates the conflict in perpetuity, it gives the Palestinians this permanent sense of victimhood and moreover, it gives them this sort of false hope that one day the millions of them will supposedly return home to their places or where they lived once before in Israel, all millions of them, and that that will ultimately annihilate Israel as a Jewish state. This includes and this is part of the absurdity of UNRWA when you have, and I think Asif touched on it as well, you know, you have the UN Refugee Agency, which covers refugees for the entire world, including now Ukraine, by the way, and elsewhere and then you have one agency just for the Palestinians. And it’s important to note here, that there is also an entirely separate definition of what even constitutes a refugee that applies to the Palestinians, but does not apply to any other group in the world and that basically allows them to carry on this label of a refugee in perpetuity. You can be someone like I’ll give you an example not only Bassam Eid, but take Bella and Gigi Hadid. Another second, third generation now Americans who are you know, filthy rich and popular, living lives of luxury that all of us here would probably only ever dream of, they are considered refugees according to this law. That’s the absurdity of it. My family, you know, we’ve fled for many generations. We found refuge in Australia, for example, and elsewhere, now managed to come here, like so many others we were resettled, the Jews were resettled, it keeps going and going and going. So I think first of all, that sort of puts that in some kind of context. Look, at the end of the day, I think it’s abundantly clear that UNRWA has become essentially an inseparable and indistinguishable part of Hamas, they’re no more than an incubator for hate and incitement for terror. There are those who insist on saying, Oh, but it’s just a few rotten apples. With all due respect, there is not just a few rotten apples, the entire organisation is rotten to the core and infested with terror. Only yesterday in the last 24 hours, there has been further intelligence that has been released that some 2,135 UNRWA staff members in Gaza, which was roughly 17-18% of the workforce there are part of Hamas, and of that number, at least 450 are active fighters. So it’s not just the dozen 13 or 14 or so that were involved in the actual attacks themselves. In the abductions, you saw the video of the 21 year old boy who was taken by an UNRWA social worker, some kind of social worker. We know that they’re involved in procuring weapons, we know that they’re involved in abductions, we know that UNRWA teachers, and we’ve heard this from hostages that have come out, we’re involved in guarding the hostages, they weren’t guarding them to make sure they were safe. They were guarding them to make sure they did not escape and then just yesterday, I’m not sure how widely that’s been released but I think it was in one of the videos, it was revealed that Ismail Haniyeh of all people was an UNRWA teacher. This is the guy that’s running the entire organisation and they found basically, a platform through UNRWA in which to manifest themselves within Gaza, to use their resources, to syphon the aim, and to make it as if it’s irreversible. So we need to banish once and for all that it is a few rotten apples, it is not a few rotten apples. It’s going down all the way from the leadership down to the people on the ground, you have eighteen to twenty of the staff in Gaza, that we know now. Most people will agree that we want aid to get to people in Gaza that need it. I’m not going to dispute that, people in Gaza need aid, fine. They need aid because, of course of the actions of Hamas on October 7 and subsequently using people as shields and so on. So we want aid to get to Gaza, the question becomes what is the vehicle by which to do that? Now there are those who say that UNRWA is irreplaceable, I refuse to believe that UNRWA is very much replaceable in the country. I think the points be made, UNRWA is not part of the solution UNRWA is certainly part of the problem and is the main impediment to peace. So we have to make the point and I think that hasn’t been done enough that there are alternatives to UNRWA. There are alternate organisations that can facilitate this work. You have not only the UN Refugee Agency, which has the mandate for refugees all over the world if they can do it in the Ukraine they can certainly do it in here. You have other society groups, you have World Food Programme, you have the Red Cross, you have USAID, you have WHR you have other organisations that can do the job. The question is one of willpower, it was important that we saw a dozen, sixteen, eighteen countries that decided to pause their funding of UNRWA. But we know and we always knew that that was temporary, we’ve already seen Canada, Australia, Sweden have already said that they will resume their funding. There are countries in Europe, the European Commission, as well, which is one of the primary donors. The US, were it not for a deal recently between Congress and the White House on a defence related appropriations bill, would have jumped at the opportunity. But that bill we know now is essentially to provide a statutory pause on the US providing any further funding to UNRWA until at least March 2025.

Barak Seener  41:09

Arson, my apologies for interrupting you. Before I open it up to Q&A, I would just like to ask if you could please touch on what the action that you are taking at the moment? I think everyone would be really interested to hear about that, especially as the intelligence assessments against UNRWA are so incredibly grave.

Arson Ostrovsky  41:36

Sure, UNRWA itself, it’s difficult to pursue as an entity, largely because of the fact that it’s a UN organisation, a UN entity, they enjoy diplomatic immunity. So it is difficult to do that and unless Antonio Guterres, for example, waives that immunity for people like Lazzarini and other senior officers, that will remain. So going after UNRWA itself legally is difficult. Through policy, through diplomacy, that’s something very different. What we’ve done with International Legal Forum and our partners at the National Jewish Advocacy Centre, and others, is said, okay, we’re going to go another route. In the US, for example, you have UNRWA USA, UNRWA USA is a 501(c)(3) charitable entity. It is technically separate to UNRWA but its sole purpose exists in order to fundraise for UNRWA. So you as an individual, if you want to donate to UNRWA you can do that through UNRWA USA, and you get your tax deduction in 2022. They were the largest and still are the single largest private fundraiser for UNRWA, the year before that it was $5 million. So what we said is that essentially, that UNRWA USA is a material supporter of terror. Because under that angle we can pursue them, if we can show that they knew, which was what we said that, you know, they knew all along, as we said, going back to at least 2004 with Peter Hanson, when he said that Hamas members were part of UNRWA, but they just didn’t see that as a crime. So what we said is that UNRWA USA knowingly and systematically despite the overwhelming evidence even before the bombshell reports were already aware and on knowledge of UNRWA’s ties to Hamas but nonetheless continued to facilitate, educate and fundraise for those efforts, and therefore effectively they’ve been underwriting both the attacks and the ongoing captivity and abduction of hostages in Gaza. So by doing that they’re in breach of federal anti-terrorism legislation, they’re in breach of sanctions, they are in breach of IRS code. But primarily in facilitating and being a material supporter of terror we filed this claim on behalf of a number of survivors, including survivors from the Nova festival, including those that have been displaced, as well as families of hostages as well those who still to this day are in captivity.

Barak Seener  44:17

Thank you so much Arson, I want to open it up to Q&A. And if everybody can please just respond succinctly two to three minutes per person. Jacqueline Gross asks quite an important question, what can be done about UNRWA, ss there an alternative? You know, you mentioned Arson a number of organisations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Again, the problem remains can these organisations be viable alternatives or are they going to be invariably co-opted by the authoritarian environment?

Arson Ostrovsky  45:04

That’s you know, that’s a good question. Right now, I think any option essentially is better than the existing option. I think UNRWA is the not the lesser of the evils but the far greater of all evils. Other entities are UN affiliated as well but which are far less problematic. You know, we saw the UN Refugee Agency, how quickly they moved around to facilitate and assist refugees from Ukraine and Russia conflict, so they can move fast. We know USAID, can move in the UK as well, and other entities WHO, WFP Habitat as well, Red Cross. It’s something that will take time and that’s something that we need to look at, obviously, in conjunction with any military efforts. But I think, it’s more perhaps an issue of timing, but it’s also a double edged sword. The longer we wait, the more UNRWA will remain entrenched and other countries will resume their funding and the more difficult it will be. So I think now is honestly the time that we need to capitalise on and to really make the case and also keep the pressure on their respective governments and allies that are funding not to be resumed, certainly not before any investigations are complete.

Barak Seener  46:24

Thank you. Pierre, I extend the same question to you. What alternative is there to UNRWA or due to the culture of the environment? Will they become radicalised co-opted, corrupt, etc.

Pierre Rehov  46:46

The environment is very violent and very corrupted, as I said already, and from the field, since most of the people at least in Gaza, working for UNRWA are also members of Hamas or their organisation. And if they are not members of the Hamas and other terror organisations, you have to understand that at least some members of their family is Hamas, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad or something else. So the interconnection is absolute, it’s not like you have somebody who is totally not connected to Hamas, who is part of UNRWA. So in this environment, at this point, I don’t see how we can just, you know, make it change from inside it has to be dismantled and rebuilt, whether it’s going to be the Palestinians who are going to suffer for a certain period of time, or because of it or not, it’s not the problem, we are looking at the situation on the long term situation. As it is, the animal has to die, it doesn’t work. It is rabid, you cannot do anything about it. It’s corrupted at every single level of the organisation itself and also we must not forget about the pressure of a lot of Arab countries, at least maybe not so much today but at the very beginning, the whole idea was UNRWA would maintain and perpetuate the status of refugees to the Palestinians, until today, Israel would cease to exist. In the minds of most of those people, it still is a case today, of course, there is the Abraham Accords and of course, maybe one day, Israel is going to make peace with Saudi Arabia and the situation is not the same as 75 years ago. But inside Gaza, inside the Palestinian territories inside Judea and Samaria, in the mind of the people it still is, we are still dreaming of haqu aleawda, which means the right of return and it’s a key to everything in our mind. So how are we going to just modify it, or it has to be dismantled and replaced from scratch. That’s the only thing I can see, with that it’s not my field of expertise.

Barak Seener  49:18

Asif, what’s your perception on this?

Dr. Asaf Romirowsky  49:24

UNRWA has a monopoly over all these services and part of the issue is weaning Palestinian society off of all these services, as I mentioned earlier in my opening remarks, UNRWA has been acting as a shadow government for the Palestinian Authority.  But it’s a gradual process, I agree with Arson. There are alternatives, I mean, for example, UNICEF and WHO have already been operating in the area since the 1990s. You’ve got the World Food Programme, you got USAID, you got World Bank, you’ve got the Migration Agency. The beginning of this has tried to get any kind of accountability and transparency. The problem has been from all my research over the years is that you give UNRWA money and the United States alone gives, you know, under the Trump administration, they froze the money, but on average, the US has been giving about $400 million in US taxpayer dollars. And so you’re talking about a money that continues to grow, based on the fallacious natural growth of our Palestinian refugees, which are receiving money based on to Arson’s point, and he’s correct about that. I would even go as far as also exemplifying individuals like Queen Rania, you’re getting money based on a fallacious status, not based on need, there has to be a needs assessment. And the argument needs to be that it’s not like you’re not going to be receiving money based on the need, but based on a fallacious status, you have to end that also as far as ending the right of return. And you got to start breaking the monopoly with these other agencies, in order to actually see where the needs are, and who is getting the aid that can happen. The problem that’s being discussed now, and this is more part of where this conundrum we’re in, that in the day after tomorrow scenario, people are still talking about European countries, the Canadians now react as far as giving money back to UNRWA, because they say that nothing can happen without them. It’s not true. There are alternatives, these agencies can do it, they’ve been doing it for other organisations and more to the point, they have much more neutrality than UNRWA does, UNRWA does not have any neutrality. As I said, you know, this is really the anomaly of UNRWA itself. It is this case study where the client has hijacked the service provider, that cannot be the case going forward and if you’re going to be looking at what people need, you got to break that monopoly. And you got to get some kind of accountability and transparency dealing with the US, Israel and the other stakeholders involved in what’s going to happen in the day after tomorrow.

Barak Seener  52:04

I would welcome others apart from Jacqueline Gross who asked a very important question. I would welcome others to ask questions. But in the meantime, I think that everybody said something that touched upon something even more fundamental, if you use Gaza, as a microcosm of what is happening around the world. Pierre mentioned, you need to dismantle it, and how do you dismantle it and then rebuild it. To use the World War Two analogy, how do you have de Nazification that has a transition to nation building? How does one achieve that without enormous coercion? At the moment now we are relying on precision strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. But how do you manage to achieve a broader de Nazification if everybody is networked in via family members, friends, etc, to terrorism? How does one successfully achieve that to ensure that all the agencies that you’ve described won’t share the same fate that UNRWA did in the future? So this question isn’t only about UNRWA, it’s about re-education and nation building. liberalisation.

Pierre Rehov  53:44

Well, we are talking of people who have been now inside Gaza, this brainwashed for 17 years, the Palestinians have before the Hamas took power and today are not the same kind of people. Their kid was born in 2000, now is still today 24 years old only thing he’s known since he was capable of understanding anything at all was the Hamas was in power and the Jews are monsters. So we have generations and generations we have, I would say, it’s been proven by the latest polls inside Gaza, showing that 78% of the Palestinians not only support Hamas, but also support what happened on October 7. So we are talking of a very, very sick society and the whole society itself has to go for a period of time where like, like the Allies did in Germany after World War Two, it has to be occupied by the boots. People have to handle security of Gaza and it doesn’t have to be anyone connected to Hamas or to Palestinian Authority. I’m not saying Israel should go there, I’m talking about the international coalition eventually. But this has to be imposed through strength, it’s not a field of diplomacy. We are in the middle of a war with Hamas and it’s not the moment to try to find the sweet way. It has to be imposed upon them, that’s it as simple as that.

Barak Seener  55:22

So Arson it seems that Pierre is saying one needs to have occupation by international stakeholders to change to overhaul the culture to ensure that this type of radicalization doesn’t dominate any future agency that seeks to address the fate of the Palestinian wellbeing? What say you?

Arson Ostrovsky  55:52

First of all, you know, how do you de-nazify Gaza? First of all, you get rid of the actual Nazis. In other words, you get rid of Hamas, that’s first of all, as long as they exist, or to be more precise, as long as they exist in a form of where they are allowed to govern, and control the territory militarily and politically, this will continue because remember, we’re not only fighting Hamas terrorists, we’re fighting an idea as well, which is far more complicated. Anyone who thinks that this can be processed, denazification, deradicalization process can be completed in a matter of weeks or months is I wish they were correct, but they are not. They will take generations, as Pierre said, you know, essentially from the moment many of them are born, they’re indoctrinated, and brainwashed to believe that Israel is the worst, they must uprise and that one day they will be allowed to come home to the supposed homes in Israel and reclaim the territory. So this is a multi-generational process. How do we get there, ultimately, first of all, Israel needs to have a convincing military victory. We need to make sure that UNRWA is out of the picture long term that it has no role to play, we have to be careful in terms of which money is coming in which agencies operating. I have some elements of concern with some of the agencies possible that have been mentioned but all far less so than I do with the existing status quo and most organisations I believe that we can in fact work with and we do have control over the curriculum is probably one of the key things. We know that the textbooks we know from Congress from the European Parliament, we know that from Israelis, it’s beyond any kind of dispute that the books are indoctrinating them beyond any level of doubt. We need to obviously reformat that completely so I do think it is possible, but it is something that will take a great deal of time and generation.

Barak Seener  58:10

I’ll extend the same question to Asaf, but Asaf can you also address Peter Balfour’s short term question as well, which is the fact that UNRWA is connected to the UN, it gives it a degree of respectability, and is there any way that before dismantling it completely, that that sense of respectability can be eliminated?

Dr. Asaf Romirowsky  58:42

Look, there are two facets here. I don’t disagree with anything that my co panellists said. I think that it’s going to take time, there has to be a decisive victory at large UNRWA has to be out of the picture altogether. I also think that Israel, for military considerations is not going to be able to leave Gaza, they’re going to have to be dealing with a similar situation, I’m not going to say what we saw pre 2005 from a security standpoint, they’re going to be in the area for a while. So there’s going to be a question about how the governance is going to be looked at but there has to be a decisive victory all around and getting UNRWA out of the picture. I also have larger concerns, not to mention the involvement of the Qataris who’ve been funding all this activity, which has also been a larger problem as well. But within the hallways of the United Nations, the number one centrepiece has been spotlighted has been the Palestinian narrative, which is why UNRWA gets so much credibility as far as the UN humanitarian international organisation that has neutrality, UNRWA is nothing but that and the so called respectability that was mentioned, only exists within the halls of the United Nations. But it’s exactly why the Palestinians have been using and abusing the United Nations, in order to make that happen. This is, you know, part of the fallacy that exists at large here, and this is what needs to end immediately. But, you know, using alternative agencies is, again, a potential of trying to look at some kind of transparency and accountability. We have known from congressional reports of UNRWA’s problems, but these are all symptoms of a larger problem. And the larger problem is a so called natural growth of Arab Palestinian refugees, there has to be a cutting down on these numbers, exactly what society is going to look like and the fact is that the right of return is perceived as a divine right. And so Palestinians, and no Palestinian leader believes that you can give up the so called right of return, which is why UNRWA is still in business. And so this all needs to change, Palestinian identity at large is synonymous to Palestinian refugee. All of us have shared our refugee story, but if you’re going to move on between refugee status to statehood that needs to happen. But the problem with Palestinian identity is, I would argue that 90% of Palestinian identity, if not more, is basically rooted in antisemitism. And so the lack of coexistence, the lack of accepting Israel’s right to exist, all of these need to change in a decisive victory. And for that to happen UNRWA needs to be out of the picture, the textbooks, the incitement Hamas’ involvement, they have to be removed and that’s the only way to do this.

Barak Seener  1:01:47

It seems as if based on your answer, you would basically be answering Peter Balfour, his question that how can their credibility with the UN be discounted? It can’t be  because the Palestinian narrative occupies such a central space within the UN? Am I correct?

Dr. Asaf Romirowsky  1:02:09

100%. I mean, it is and furthermore, the perception is there is a kind of a Western cognitive dissonance that when we say refugees, we believe people are fleeing for their lives. No running water, we’re talking about Africa. That is not the case study within the Arab Palestinian narrative. It’s never been, I would even argue that, you know, as far back as the 1970s, in the 80s, the majority of the population we’re talking about have already been resettled. And so this has to change but the psychology and the impression within the UN, to Peters question is its ingrained in them about Palestinians are synonymous to refugees in perpetuity.

Barak Seener  1:02:50

One very final question by Claire Woolford, we’re already going slightly over time. But the Israeli government has little concern about UNRWA in the West Bank, only UNRWA in Gaza. How can that be as Hamas has a big following in the West Bank and some of the Palestinians employed there may be Hamas members? I’ll just open that up to the panellists. Please, everybody, only give a one two minute response.

Dr. Asaf Romirowsky  1:03:27

The problem is pervasive throughout the entire system at large. It’s not only limited to, you know, Gaza, limited to the entire UN agency in the Palestinian areas, the same problem that we saw also at their offices in Lebanon and Syria, it is a pervasive problem. UNRWA has to be out of the scene in its totality and you’re seeing the symptoms, but the same symptoms that you see in Gaza also exist elsewhere, and every other so called Arab Palestinian refugee camp, you know, Lebanon, the Nahr al-Bared was fertile ground for PLO activities in the 80s, in the 90s. There is nothing new here, it is consistent at large and has to be dismantled at large.


Barak Seener  1:04:09

I ask the same question to Arson, do you think there’s too much of a focus on Gaza, as opposed to the West Bank in terms of UNRWA’s activities?

Arson Ostrovsky  1:04:21

There is, but it’s understandable given everything that emanated from Gaza on October 7 so don’t think that comes as a shock. That said, I think, yes, absolutely we need to be looking also at what UNRWA is doing in Judea and Samaria as well. But not only that, we also have to be mindful that UNRWA has offices in Jerusalem as well and that’s a whole other discussion, there are a lot of discussions on foot at the moment in terms of what to do with UNRWA, their facilities and their operations in Israel, how to stop that how to prevent that, how to prevent Israeli banks. There’s already a number of steps on foot from providing financial services, what to do with the property that they own as well whether to designate them as a terror group within Israel also. So there’s a lot of discussions that are happening on foot and I think it needs to be a multifaceted effort and I would just also, again, take the opportunity to just reiterate what I said before, which I think is incredibly critical, certainly looking for an alternative to UNRWA, but an alternative to the very narrative which they’re continuing to perpetuate, and which remains a problem unless we manage to cut that at the root as well about the whole Palestinian narrative and the supposed right of return.

Barak Seener  1:05:35

Thank you. Pierre, what are your thoughts?

Pierre Rehov  1:05:39

First of all, I totally agree with both my co panellists and on the top of that I would like to add that the main problem, the number one problem that we have to solve, I mean, not the main problem, but the thing that has to be solved very, very quickly, is education. I think the first target because it’s such a huge file to handle but the first thing to look into is the educational system, because right now, as we speak, in the West Bank, I mean, in Judea, Samaria, even in East Jerusalem, you have kids who go to school and continue to learn that Jews don’t have the right to their land, and that everything was stolen from them, and the Jews are monsters, etc, etc. So if we want to think about the future, we have to, first of all, make sure right now that all the old textbooks are changed, republished, reprinted, and don’t let the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA be in charge of that specific file. The rest also is actually really important but one of the things I wanted to say earlier, and I’m sorry, is that the Palestinian society is divided in camps, it is divided into families, and one of the keys for the future of the Palestinian territories becoming eventually a country one day, which is a theme that Israel didn’t do when we went into the stupid Oslo process 25 years or so ago, 30 years ago. They prefer to have Yasser Arafat, and what the President called the gang of Tunis come back and be in charge of the Palestinians instead of dealing with the families. For instance, there was unfortunately he died three weeks ago, [inaudible] who is the leader of the [inaudible], we are talking of a family with 5000 soldiers in arms, not a bad guy, not a family against Israel and those separate families. If Israel was capable to dealing with them at a separate level by giving them some interest, you all will be in charge of culture, you will be in charge of finances, and then you can build a Palestinian country within what already exists, which is what makes the Palestinian society today.

Barak Seener  1:08:11

I’d like to thank my panellists, Pierre Rehov, Arson Ostrovsky and Dr. Asaf Romirowsky. It’s just been really, really stimulating and I think the perspectives that were shared here today are often underreported in the Western media. I think Israel has had an approach whereby it constantly seeks to advance its own survival within the context of the status quo and that’s clearly not sustainable and a huge overhaul is required in Palestinian society to foster a liberal civil society that serves as a political framework, and a social context for NGOs that offer services to Palestinians. UNRWA is just the symptom, but on a more causal and holistic level, that liberal overhaul is required to have genuine democratic governance. So once again, I’d like to thank you all and the conversation today has been tremendous. Thank you so much.

Dr. Asaf Romirowsky  1:09:26

Thank you.


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