Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Hillel Neuer, UNRWA’s Toughest Critic, To Address Swiss Parliament”

UNRWA’s Fiercest Critic

UN Watch chief tells Swiss Foreign Affairs Committee about his experiences with the Palestinian Relief and Works Agency


Neue Zürcher Zeitung | 29 April 2024

“If a teacher at a Swiss school were to say: ‘Kill all the Jews,’ what would happen?” Hillel Neuer asks a rhetorical question. Of course the teacher would be fired. “We don’t put someone in front of a school class who calls for mass murder or glorifies Adolf Hitler!” But the opposite regularly happens at the schools run by the Palestinian relief organization UNRWA, says Neuer. Perhaps a Facebook post has to be deleted, but the teacher remains on duty.

Neuer is the director of the NGO UN Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva. Its purpose is to monitor and investigate the activities and decisions of the UN, which is suspected of being critical of Israel. This Monday, Neuer, a Canadian lawyer, will inform the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) of the National Council about UNRWA’s links with Hamas.

This is one of the most controversial issues in federal politics at the moment – as evidenced by the dozens of e-mails and phone calls that foreign policy experts have received from various quarters over the past few days: Should Switzerland continue to donate millions to the Palestinian relief organization UNRWA, or should the suffering population in the Gaza Strip be supported in other ways?

Defiant appearance by Lazzarini

The head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, was heard in Geneva at the last session of the committee. However, according to various members of parliament, he missed the opportunity to promote his own cause following the suspension of the CHF 20 million that Switzerland had previously transferred annually. His appearance was defiant and accusatory, it is said. In any case, a majority of the committee voted in favor of hearing another voice at the next opportunity.

None is as powerful as Neuer’s. For years, he has been repeating on every possible platform that UNRWA is infiltrated by Hamas. For the NZZ, Neuer describes the inglorious career of Suhail al-Hindi, for example, who rose to the top of Hamas as an UNRWA teacher. The case is well documented and exemplifies the links between the aid organization and the terrorist organization.

Hindi had already joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a student, became principal of an UNRWA elementary school and head of the union that represents the staff of the UN relief organization. When UNRWA suspended him in 2011 because of his closeness to Hamas figures, thousands of teachers in the Gaza Strip went on strike. Hindi won the trial of strength and was able to return to his post. In 2017, he was finally appointed to the Hamas politburo. “It’s not the UNRWA director who manages what happens at the aid organization’s schools, but guys like Suhail al-Hindi,” says Neuer.

His argument is consistently accusatory and puts UNRWA on the defensive. Typical of its tone and handling of facts is UNRWA’s reaction to a report by UN Watch on extremist statements made by 22 employees of the aid organization on social networks in 2021. UNRWA writes that the accusations come from an organization “with a long history of unfounded and politically motivated allegations.” Only 10 of the 22 people named were UNRWA employees. For Neuer, it is clear that the aid organization must be “dismantled and replaced.” The Palestinians in Gaza are living in a terrible situation, but there are certainly alternatives: “In Sudan, 10 million people are receiving humanitarian aid – without UNRWA,” argues Neuer.

Neuer will also speak to the National Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee about al-Hindi — and his organization’s experience with the aid agency. UN Watch has “hundreds of pieces of evidence” where teachers said: “I love Adolf Hitler, he should have finished his job with the Jews.”

But the UNRWA director ignored UN Watch’s attempts to engage: “Can we meet? No answer. Should I meet you in Geneva, Amman or New York? No answer.”

Uproar in Geneva

This is one of the reasons why Neuer wants to stir up international Geneva with UN Watch: More than almost anyone else, he has understood that you can make your voice heard at the UN’s second headquarters with a powerful NGO. For example, organizations that are accredited to the Human Rights Council (like UN Watch) can regularly appear in plenary sessions.

In this respect, it should not be underestimated that NGOs can fly politically exposed persons from third countries to Europe more easily than to the USA for visa reasons. Neuer’s squad makes clever use of the available platforms. In 2017, for example, the speech by a former Hamas member at the Human Rights Council, speaking on behalf of UN Watch, caused quite a stir. He attacked the Palestinian Authority so vehemently that some of the diplomats in the room simply stared into the audience in bewilderment.

This kind of plain-speaking is a wake-up call for the Geneva-based UN and NGO scene, whose internalized criticism of Israel tolerates little dissent. Neuer and his organization are therefore regularly met with outrage. The tenor: despite its unsuspicious name, UN Watch is neither objective nor neutral, but simply a stooge of the Israeli state.

Amnesty Switzerland reacted with corresponding consternation to Neuer’s appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee. The fact that he was heard was “extremely disturbing.” UN Watch can in no way be regarded as an organization that provides “reliable and independent information”, but instead represents an “extremely dangerous position” in relation to the civilian population of Gaza and other Middle East countries. In short: if you share the position of UN Watch, you accept an extension of the famine, writes an Amnesty media spokeswoman on request.

These are harsh statements towards an organization that was founded in the context of the American civil rights movement. Neuer points out to the NZZ that the attempt to discredit him is systematic: “It is a typical stereotype that all those who speak out in any way against anti-Israeli prejudice must automatically be puppets of Israel.”

In order to officially hear voices like these – and to counter Neuer’s pointed statements – the committee decided back in March to invite a pro-Palestinian organization to the event on Monday. It wrote to several NGOs, who agreed to “send” the aid organization of the Swiss Protestant Reformed Church (Heks). Its representative is likely to have a difficult time. In view of the acute situation, there will be proposals to allocate part of the CHF 20 million to UNRWA. However, a majority of the Committee seems willing to remove the UN organization from the list of recipients altogether.

This does not mean that the money should be saved. According to a proposal by EDU National Councillor Erich Vontobel, the money should go to alternative aid organizations that are neither suspected of having links to Hamas nor having a Jewish background. He does not want to reveal exactly which ones, but it is not the ICRC or the Heks. “As far as I’m concerned, the money can be spoken on Tuesday,” he says. However, it can’t happen that quickly. If the proposal finds a majority, it would be referred as a committee motion – and would first have to be discussed by the Council of States’ sister committee and then by both Councils.

UN Watch