Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part IV – Right of Return and Hamas

Hamas, Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement, took over the Gaza Strip through the ballot box in 2007. It was founded when the PLO in the late 1980s began considering making peace and recognizing Israel. Other than the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that informs its ethics and conduct, unlike the PLO, Hamas has a historical reputation for honesty and integrity. It also adamantly opposed, not simply the recognition of Israel, but Israel’s existence. Hamas has fought three major wars with Israel in a decade in power.

Hamas is most closely associated in ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which occupied Gaza until 1967.  For many observers, the puzzle is why Hamas has been so dogmatically antithetical to the existence of Israel when it initially was supported by Israel as an alternative to the PLO because Hamas was not then belligerent in its dealings with Israel. That was clearly Israel’s mistake, for its 1988 charter explicitly states as its goal the elimination of Israel. That is why Hamas has been so unswerving on insisting on the right of return, for Hamas agrees with Israel that the return of millions of Palestinians would mean the end of Israel.

Initially, when its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, engaged in cross-border raids and suicide bombings, Israel branded Hamas as a terrorist organization. That was soon after its founding shortly after the First Intifada However, during the Second Intifada at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hamas became more of a standing army in Gaza, initially by launching rocket attacks against Israel and, once it took control of Gaza, engaging in open warfare. When Israel moved from reprisals to invasions after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas, instead of trying to construct a peaceful polity side-by-side Israel, used the territory as a launching pad for military excursions across the border.

There have been many discussions about why Ariel Sharon decided to uproot the Israeli settlements in Gaza and launch a unilateral withdrawal, or, as it was called, a disengagement. Demographic consideration was the main one, that is, keeping Israeli control only in areas with a preponderance of Israelis. Hamas dubbed it an “expulsion” or Hitnatkut.

The idea of unilateral withdrawal was first proposed by the Left in Israel in the conviction that, once the government in Gaza assumed responsibility for the territory and its inhabitants, it would be tamed by its new responsibilities. Sharon’s son, Gilad, took credit for proposing the plan to his father. Hamas would be less prone to engaging in military activities. Ariel Sharon adopted the idea in 2003 and had it approved by the Knesset in 2004.

The expectations proved to be wrong, especially after Hamas won the elections in 2006 and broke with the Palestinian Authority in rejecting the Oslo Accords and any reconciliation with Israel. Truces were OK, but not peace.

Why then did the Palestinians in Gaza give Hamas their support when opinion surveys showed that a majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported peace with Israel? There are several reasons. First, though a majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported peace and many Gazans wanted to continue their practice of working in Israel, a majority of Palestinian refugees opposed making such a peace. Palestinians with refugee roots constituted over half the population of Gaza. A very large majority of the indigenous population of Gaza supported peace to offset the majority of Palestinian refugees opposed to peace.

However, the attitude to Israel and the fundamentalist religious streak do not alone account for the rise to power of Hamas. Hamas defined itself as honest, as the champion of the rights of the downtrodden and deprived and as an alternative to the corrupt and condescending PLO rooted much more strongly in the indigenous population.  In January 2006, Hamas won a plurality of seats from Gaza to the Palestinian Parliament. Economic pressure tactics by financial donors then became serious and further aid was made conditional on recognition of Israel and the adoption of non-violence. Instead, Hamas upped the ante and by 2007 had taken over control of the security forces in Gaza in the 2007 Battle of Gaza. The economic pressure tactics did not work and, in fact, helped bring about the opposite, a government in Gaza committed to belligerency against Israel.

When the PLO and the Palestinian Authority civil servants were ousted from their positions in Gaza, Israel with the backing of the U.S. and Egypt, imposed a blockade. Successive efforts of Hamas to forge a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority have been unsuccessful. Even when agreements were signed, there were claims by each side that the other was not living up to the terms of the reconciliation agreement.

At a deeper level, Hamas had won status as the authentic representatives of the Palestinian soul even when this was at odds with any pragmatic peace agreement. The Hamas network of social services on the ground helped it earn the trust of those most in need, aided considerably by extensive external support from Turkey with the accession of Tayyip Erdoğan to power.

A final factor at a deeper level made Hamas more intransigent. If Abbas in the West Bank had a record of minimizing the Holocaust and of latent antisemitism. Hamas had a record of Holocaust denial and of blatant antisemitism. Hamas declared war on UNRWA in 2009 when it planned to include references to the Holocaust in its text books. UNRWA ran two-thirds of the schools in Gaza and Hamas accused UNRWA of running a rival government. What would have happened if we had succeeded in redirecting funds for UNRWA to the government of Gaza as part of the peace process and ending the preservation of Palestinian refugees as a separate constituency?

erhaps the results of Hamas control would have been no different since UNRWA folded under Hamas pressure and deleted the “offensive” passages from its text books. Further, this breakout towards independence stood out as an exception, for none of the UNRWA schools in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria had made any such effort. This was also true of the schools under UNRWA auspices in The West Bank then controlled by the IDF with regard to security.

UNRWA tried to introduce objective history However, UNRWA folded in other ways, in allowing its schools and hospitals to be used by Hamas militants as “safe havens” for arms and soldiers who had been wounded as well as for planning operations in its successive wars against Israel. The effort to make UNRWA more independent and objective backfired and UNRWA operations de facto fell under the thumb of Hamas in total contradiction to its supposed international control.

Hamas efforts to control UNWRA reached a successful pinnacle in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s cancellation of American grants to UNRWA. The sweeping cuts were used to lay off mostly excess staff and reduce the payroll to bring wages more in line with prevailing Gazan wage scales. The UNRWA Gaza headquarters were seized in reprisal. Most of the international staff and the families of international staff members fled to Israel. This forced UNRWA to issue a statement that its Gazan headquarters had been “partially occupied;” in reality, the Gaza headquarters then came directly under the control of Hamas.

In open breach of an impartiality rule supposedly governing UNRWA, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, visited the seized headquarters, even though Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the US, was explicitly banned from entry. In sum, the cancellation of US donations to UNRWA had resulted in enhanced control of the portion of UNRWA serving the largest numbers of Palestinians.

In ten years, from 2008 to 2018, U.S. contributions had shot up from $96 million to $350 million and from 12% of its budget to almost 30%. That era ended abruptly in August. The indirect result was the integration of UNRWA operations in Gaza into one under the control of Hamas, even if formally kept separate. It is difficult to see at this point how this could possibly benefit the peace process.


With the help of Alex Zisman



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