Don’t give more money to the UN’s failed Palestinian refugee agency

With heavy fighting continuing inside a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is asking countries for an emergency bailout — not to secure the camp and prevent terrorists from exploiting international resources, but to establish alternative schooling options while militants occupy the schools that American taxpayers already funded. Instead of throwing good money after bad, U.S. lawmakers should put an end to UNRWA’s safe havens for terrorism — whether in Lebanon, Gaza or the West Bank. 

Five days of heavy clashes broke out in early August between Palestinian terror groups vying for control of the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, just southeast of the Lebanese port city of Sidon. Thirteen Palestinians were killed, hundreds of homes destroyed and more than 2,000 displaced.  

The fighting began on July 29, when a gunman targeted Islamist terrorist Mahmoud Khalil, but instead killed his companion. Islamist militants held the once-dominant Palestinian group Fatah responsible and killed a Fatah general and his bodyguards the following day. The skirmishes in a dense urban environment featured mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire. Armed groups even commandeered eight schools in the camp. 

The fighting reverberated throughout Lebanon. The UN halted services to the camp for a week. At least eight countries issued travel warnings to Lebanon amid the skirmishes. Najib Mikati, the country’s caretaker prime minister, threatened to intervene if the fighting did not subside. After a few weeks of calm, heavy gunfire and shelling resumed last week. 

Ain al-Hilweh is the largest camp for Palestinians in Lebanon. Beirut prohibits Palestinians from receiving Lebanese government services, owning property or practicing in many professions — leaving them destitute and entirely reliant on a UN bureaucracy whose mandate focuses on perpetuating their refugee status. Neither UNRWA nor the Lebanese Armed Forces take responsibility for security inside the camp, and the precise number of Palestinians living there remains a subject of dispute between the government and the UN. 

This, however, is not a Lebanon-specific problem. Ain al-Hilweh is paradigmatic of a broken UN system underwritten by the American taxpayer — one that increasingly threatens the stability of the West Bank and the security of Israel. 

UNRWA also operates in Jenin Camp in the West Bank, another hotbed for armed groups, in which 25,000 Palestinians reside. Israeli responses to terrorist incidents stemming from Jenin, such as the large-scale operation in July 2023 to degrade Islamic Jihad assets, punctuate the camp’s routine lawlessness. The chaos is so extreme that security forces from the Palestinian Authority, which has jurisdiction over the camp, rarely enter. 

Why does this culture of welfare terrorism persist within the UNRWA? The answer lies in its flawed mandate.

The Palestinians are the only people for whom the UN operates a separate refugee agency. This unique agency has a uniquely expansive definition of who constitutes a refugee, allowing the status to be passed automatically to male descendants of actual refugees. Patrilineal-inherited refugee status has led UNRWA’s refugee numbers to swell from 750,000 to 5.9 million. 

These inflated numbers have led to inflated budgets. UNRWA allocated nearly $125 million of its $911 million 2021 budget estimate to Lebanon. In 2023, Lebanon accounted for $160 million of UNRWA’s $436.7 million emergency appeal. Despite the ever-increasing budgets, the number of Palestinian refugees — according to UNRWA’s definition — living in Lebanon has plummeted from 500,000 to fewer than 250,000 in recent years. Meanwhile, since President Joe Biden took office, his administration has lined UNRWA’s coffers to the tune of approximately $1 billion. 

UNRWA employs almost 30,000 people, nearly all Palestinians. Its employees and beneficiaries include members of foreign terrorist organizations — something UNRWA refuses to stop. And when these UNRWA-subsidized terrorists turn their camps into bases of operation, UNRWA throws its hands in the air claiming it has no mandate for security — and then promptly asks for more money to address its homegrown terror-sponsored emergency. 

Notably, UNRWA does not offer resettlement as an option, which aligns with the Lebanese dispossession of its Palestinian guests. Rather, the UN body promotes a fictitious Palestinian right to live in Israel, which would force the Jewish state to cease to be Jewish.  

The violence in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp demonstrates the danger of the UN’s policy of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee debacle. UNRWA’s approach only increases Palestinian suffering. This must end. 

One day, the UN will need to dissolve UNRWA, turning over its responsibilities to host governments and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Until that day comes, Congress should prevent taxpayer dollars provided to UNRWA from facilitating terror, hatred and human rights abuses. 

Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where David May is a research manager. Follow the authors @rich_goldberg and @DavidSamuelMay.

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