UNRWA should be disbanded and replaced, former general counsel of agency tells House

James Lindsay testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that UNRWA is ‘both incompetent and willfully obstructionist of fundamental reforms’


The UNRWA logo is seen on the vest of an employee during a visit to the Jabal El Hussein refugee camp of UNRWA, , part of a diplomatic mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories, in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday 15 May 2024.

James Lindsay, a former general counsel of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, testified to a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday that UNRWA’s cumulative failures over the course of decades to address problems, of which it has repeatedly been made aware, demand that it be replaced.

Referencing a recent report commissioned by the U.N. secretary-general on UNRWA’s neutrality — which supporters of Israel have described as biased and incomplete — Lindsay said that there is ample evidence that UNRWA cannot continue to operate.

“Given the… report’s revelations that UNRWA’s leadership is both incompetent and willfully obstructionist of fundamental reforms, UNRWA should be replaced,” he said.

Lindsay said UNRWA is not, as U.N. authorities and the recent report claim, irreplaceable.

And Lindsay said that, while not implemented as official policy, current moves by the U.S. and Israel are effectively beginning the process of winding down UNRWA. He said that the congressionally mandated pause on UNRWA funding, in effect through 2025, should be continued beyond then.

Lindsay said that he personally tried to raise concerns during his time at UNRWA, but was consistently ignored. He also noted that he’d written a report in 2009, after leaving UNRWA, highlighting issues in the agency that was again ignored.

“The situation in UNRWA was not receptive to things that were at all critical of what was being done already,” he said. 

While Lindsay said the recent review of UNRWA did not and was not designed to address major long-standing criticisms, it did offer dozens of recommendations that “reflect obvious management deficiencies… things that any competent management team would have long ago addressed without prodding from an independent review.”

Those include UNRWA’s failure to vet staff for terrorist connections or remove antisemitic, anti-Israel content glorifying violence from UNRWA educational materials.

“The same issues have been brought to the attention of UNRWA’s management repeatedly, and over a period of literally decades,” Lindsay said. “The recommendations in the… report reflect both a lack of competent management and a decades-long willful obstruction of some fundamental reforms. They constitute a damning indictment of UNRWA’s current and past leadership.”

He particularly emphasized that UNRWA should be using the same definition of refugees utilized by other U.N. agencies, which would exclude anyone who has gained citizenship in another country — nearly a third of current UNRWA beneficiaries — and would bar those with criminal records (including for involvement in terrorism) from receiving aid. He said beneficiaries must also be vetted more thoroughly.

Lindsay further dismissed as invalid the excuses that UNRWA has offered for its failure to remove problematic content from its textbooks.

He noted that UNRWA does not account for the fact that the information it releases about its curricula “has little connection” to the actual situation on the ground, particularly in Gaza, where teachers and other UNRWA staff have been subject to the demands of the “totalitarian” Hamas government and are not in a position to defy Hamas’ demands.

Other witnesses at the hearing lambasted the U.N. report as skewed.

“The notion that this was an independent audit was questionable at best,” Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, said, arguing that it was aimed at achieving a “predetermined result.”

Neuer said that the choice of investigators and the statements made by the U.N. officials about the review prove that it was designed from the beginning not to properly review UNRWA but to absolve it of significant wrongdoing and give donor countries cover to resume funding.

Neuer also said that UNRWA is ignoring widespread reports of misappropriation of UNRWA aid, by both terrorist groups and individual UNRWA employees and affiliates.

Yona Schiffmiller, the director of research at NGO Monitor, further said that the problems that have plagued UNRWA, particularly its ties with terrorist groups and employment of their members, are far from limited to that one agency. He urged the implementation of improved vetting procedures applying to all organizations that receive aid in the Palestinian territories.

“There is a concerted, very, very strong effort on the part of a number of organizations within the humanitarian community to try to downgrade and try to blunt anti-terror vetting procedures,” Schiffmiller warned. 

Witnesses also pushed back against interpretations of the report that characterized Israel as uncooperative or as having failed to provide proof of its accusations that UNRWA staff were members of Hamas. 

The witnesses said that such issues did not fall within the scope of the review, that Israel is cooperating with another investigation focused on that issue and that the investigator leading the case had herself debunked claims Israel did not cooperate.

Lindsay added that accusations from Israel that around 1,200 UNRWA employers are members of terrorist groups and around 6,000 are family members of terrorists “ring true given well-known facts” about the levels of support for Hamas within Gaza and UNRWA’s lack of efforts to exclude Hamas-connected and sympathetic individuals from its hiring process.

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