Ambassador Dennis Ross at the International Summit for a Future Beyond UNRWA

Ambassador Dennis Ross, Counselor at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former U.S. point man on Middle East peace process


Full Remarks

Thanks for having me. I think it’s very important that you’re running this program. There’s been years and years of discussion about the need to reform UNRWA, the need to replace UNRWA with different programs. Obviously, in the midst of what’s going on in Gaza, that’s hard to do. UNRWA is the main body responsible for distributing assistance right now. 

But that cannot be a reason not to take a very hard look at UNRWA and look at changes that need to be made, both in terms of how UNRWA operates on the one hand and also for basic reforms that are needed on the other. Reforms, which by the way, would have other agencies begin to play a role in place of UNRWA. 

So what are the key changes that I think need to be made? 

Number one, UNRWA cannot be subservient to Hamas. It’s not just that it employs people who are Hamas members, supporters and so forth. That we know is a fact. It’s also that it’s clear that one of the most important operational and intelligence centers underground was underneath the headquarters of UNRWA within Gaza City. The argument that this was not something that could have been known, the character of this tunnel was such that it would have been impossible to be in the building and not know, or hear, what was going on underneath. This was a kind of classic case of “hear no evil, see no evil, and not want to discuss any evil.” So the subservience of UNRWA to Hamas, that has to end, number one. 

Number two, there needs to be a thorough vetting of the people who work for UNRWA. There are plenty of lists that are available, certainly the United States has a list of terrorists that OFAC produces. There should be vetting of the people who are working for UNRWA and compared to that list. UNRWA has never been prepared to accept anything like that. That is unquestionably something that needs to be done. 

Thirdly, beneficiaries of UNRWA also need to be checked against these lists. It’s not just the people who are employees of UNRWA, it also has to be those people who are benefiting from it. 

Fourthly, there has never been a needs-based standard, by which those who are getting support from UNRWA, material support from UNRWA, are being tested. Those who don’t require assistance shouldn’t be getting it. 

Fifthly, the idea that every generation, no matter where they live, should still be treated as if they’re on the books, as refugees, makes no sense on its face. So, this is another area where I think there needs to be basic reform with regard to UNRWA.

Beyond what I would call reform, I would say there are other programs that ought to take the place of UNRWA. The World Food Program should be responsible for distributing food rather than UNRWA. 

We know that, again, you can’t go cold turkey here. You need a transition. Even if you weren’t in the midst of a war, where UNRWA is really the only vehicle for the distribution of assistance. The fact is, at some point when this is over, UNRWA was providing about 60% of all the meals in Gaza, before this. Why not focus on having the World Food Program take its place? And by the way, the monies that are given to UNRWA, you would deduct that, and you would give that money to the World Food Program so that it could be performing this role. 

There’s also the question of the refugees who are in Lebanon or who are in Jordan. In the case of Jordan, they’re full citizens. And as full citizens, it’s not clear why again, UNRWA should be the vehicle for this. There can be other, again, if UNRWA is providing material support to people in Jordan and Lebanon, that material support should still be provided, but it shouldn’t necessarily — at least in the case of Jordan, where they are citizens, unlike in Lebanon where they are not — UNRWA should not be the vehicle for it. 

The vehicle in Lebanon could be the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In Jordan, it should be something that’s worked out with the Jordanian government, and monies that are given by different countries to UNRWA could be given directly to the Jordanian government to provide to those who are in fact Jordanian citizens. 

These strike me as an array of different kinds of reforms and/or steps that could be taken and should be taken. 

One thing we should learn from this war: UNRWA, if not by design, certainly by consequence, effectively was a vehicle for Hamas. One thing that should not be the case in the aftermath of this war, is that UNRWA continues to play the role it did. 

Again, I’m not saying you should go cold turkey, but you should create a transition away. Because what UNRWA is doing, if UNRWA maintains the same role, if UNRWA is given this kind of continuing responsibility, it will allow Hamas to come back in. 

There is no possibility of producing reconstruction in Gaza if Hamas remains in control, and if UNRWA is a vehicle to help it be in control, it means Hamas will continue to divert any materials away to rebuild its military capability, to reconstitute itself. And if that happens, first of all, donors won’t invest in reconstruction, because they know not only about the diversion of materials, but they also know sooner or later, Hamas will trigger another conflict. So you’re not going to get reconstruction. 

The key formula for the end of this war is going to be demilitarization, and guaranteed demilitarization for reconstruction. And there is no doubt that the Israelis are actually succeeding when it comes to demilitarizing Gaza. I would actually like to see Israel redefine its objective as the demilitarization of Gaza, identify the level at which they feel they have produced enough so that you can then have international and regional mechanisms that are guaranteed to ensure there can be no remilitarization. 

Part of ensuring no remilitarization is Hamas is not only not in control, because no one, again, is going to invest if that’s the case. But also, UNRWA cannot be a vehicle for it being able to re-establish itself in Gaza. If there’s any lessons at all that we’ve learned, that’s one. 

So, bottom line here is UNRWA must continue to perform humanitarian service right now during the course of this war, but there needs to be a transition away from UNRWA over time. And the kind of reforms I spoke about earlier really need to be instituted. 

Thanks very much for having me.

UN Watch