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The end of UNRWA? Why Israel is targeting the refugee agency

The end of UNRWA? Why Israel is targeting the Palestinian refugee agency
8 min read
05 February, 2024
Analysis: Israeli accusations against UNRWA are part of a long-running interest in disbanding the UN agency and nullifying the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Humanitarian aid operations in Gaza are once again in the spotlight following the momentous International Court of Justice (ICJ) provisional rulings against Israel on 26 January.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - the leading aid entity for Palestinians in Gaza and across the Middle East - is facing accusations by Israel that some of its workers were involved in Hamas’s deadly 7 October attack.

While such claims should be taken seriously, their timing, and Israel’s long-running interest in eliminating the organisation, and have raised several questions.

The allegations, for example, were made public on the same day the ICJ ordered Israel to increase aid to Gaza and ruled that there was a “real and imminent threat” of genocide in the besieged territory.

UNRWA: An indispensable agency

The Wall Street Journal released a brief report on 29 January, informed by an Israeli intelligence dossier, that accused roughly 10 percent of UNRWA staff of holding “links” to Hamas. This allegedly included 12 UNRWA staff who directly or indirectly participated in Hamas’s attack.

The accusations have renewed a long-running debate around UNRWA, which has faced past Israeli campaigns to delegitimise its work, which includes providing food, water, education, sanitation, and other forms of aid to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

Former US President Donald Trump cut UNRWA funding in 2018, calling UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation”, with US President Joe Biden renewing it in 2021.

Sixteen Western countries quickly froze UNRWA funding in response to the accusations, holding meetings with the organisation’s leadership and Israeli officials to obtain more details. This included the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

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As a result, UNRWA has effectively lost roughly $440 million of its annual funding. Around one-third of all UNRWA’s annual funds stem from Washington, valued at $344 million.

“UNRWA serves 5.6 million Palestinian refugees stemming from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts. Most of the refugee population resides in camps located in the OPT, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The decision to suspend aid impacts refugees in all these locations,” Zaha Hassan, a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and human rights lawyer, told The New Arab.

The decision to cut international funding will be disastrous, considering UNRWA’s role in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) and the broader region. In Gaza alone, 87% of Palestinians are dependent on its services as the largest aid provider, including food aid, education, shelter, and medical care.

Other Humanitarian aid organisations are also entirely reliant on the UNRWA to coordinate what is one of the most difficult aid operations in the world. This task has become drastically more difficult since Israel’s devastating war.

“Most of the products available in the market are provided by UNRWA. We are seeing much less availability of most goods today,” Shahd Safi, a Palestinian journalist and activist living in Gaza, told The New Arab.

UNRWA provides crucial services to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East. [Getty]

Around 12,000 Palestinians in Gaza work for UNRWA, with funding cuts “creating a huge gap” and compounding the economic problems of families who depend on this salary, Safi said.

Last week, Sigrid Kaag, the Senior Humanitarian and Construction Coordinator for Gaza, said there was “no way any organization can replace or substitute the tremendous capacity and the fabric of UNRWA and its ability and knowledge”.

Such warnings have been echoed by UNRWA chief Phillipe Lazzarini and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“There is no other entity that can come in to take (UNRWA’s) place in the Middle East, and certainly not in Gaza,” Zaha Hassan from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told TNA.

“Palestinians sheltering in UN facilities are experiencing a crisis and are dependent on UNRWA emergency food and humanitarian assistance in Gaza.”

Why cut funding?

The swift cuts by 16 donor countries in response to Israeli allegations come as the humanitarian need in Gaza is at an all-time high.

UNRWA has warned its entire operations in the Middle East could be forced to shut down by the end of February if funding is not replaced. With two million Palestinians now at risk of famine, and UNRWA a major food aid provider, such cuts will be catastrophic.

UNRWA responded quickly to the Israeli allegations, immediately opting to fire the 12 staff members in question – just 0.09 % of the UN agency’s workforce - while launching a major investigation into the matter.

The organisation confirmed that one of those staff members is dead and is confirming the identity of at least two others. Lazzarini and Guterres have publicly voiced strong support for these decisions while simultaneously begging donor states to continue funding.

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The vague nature of Israeli allegations and the tiny fraction of accused UNRWA staff made Western funding cuts even more shocking, especially considering the UN agency’s quick response to claims and Gaza’s huge humanitarian needs.

The ongoing criticism of the organisation in some quarters, despite continued support from leading humanitarian NGOs, appears especially cynical given the changing nature of Israeli claims, and how such information was obtained.

Sources from within the Israeli government originally said that information on the 12 employees of interest was obtained through interrogation methods - typically meaning torture. Following criticism along these lines, the narrative shifted to surveillance, with Israel arguing it was tracking these UNRWA staff members before, during, and after 7 October.

Israel also appeared last week to revise down the number of UNRWA employees accused of being involved in the Hamas attack, from 12 to 6.

UNRWA was established to deal with the huge crisis emerging from the Nakba, or forced displacement of over 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. [Getty]

ICJ ruling

The timing of the release of Israel’s intelligence dossier has also raised questions, mere hours after the ICJ announced provisional measures demanding a list of actions from Israel.

The most notable measure was the order to make Israel institute measurable and reportable humanitarian improvements and broader humanitarian access across the whole of Gaza.

The ICJ believes Israel is not doing enough to ensure humanitarian access and aid, arguing it falls far short of expectations and requiring the country to report on its efforts to improve those conditions within one month of the court’s ruling.

“It was unfortunate that this decision came on the same day as the ICJ ruling, which determined a plausible case of genocide is taking place in Gaza and that effective and immediate measures must be taken to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza. UNRWA is critical to giving effect to the ICJ ruling,” Hassan told TNA.

The allegations could therefore lay the groundwork for Israel and its supporters to abdicate responsibility for fulfilling the ICJ’s provisional measures – namely the order to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Tel Aviv could cry foul when reporting to the ICJ, saying it cannot support organisations ‘infiltrated’ by ‘terrorists’.

Israel has also blamed UNRWA and other groups for problems with aid delivery, effectively washing its hands of responsibility for humanitarian operations and access, despite being blamed by rights groups of blocking water, food, and fuel and impeding humanitarian assistance. Human Rights Watch accused Israel of using “starvation as a weapon of war”.

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The end of UNRWA?

The targeting of UNRWA, and the international aid cuts which followed, align with Israel’s long-running interest in removing the organisation from the equation of Israel’s military occupation and the issue of Palestinian refugees.

The belief among many in Israel’s government is that removing UNRWA will create space for other humanitarian organisations such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to enter the fray.

This transition would open the door for removing the refugee status of Palestinians, thus eliminating the “right of return” – namely the right to return to the villages and towns that Palestinians were displaced from in 1948 and 1967.

“UNRWA has always had a target on its back because it is a reminder of the 1948 Palestinian forced displacement, known as ‘the Nakba,’ which helped establish the state of Israel as a majority Jewish state. For many years, there have been efforts to dismantle or defund UNRWA,” Hassan told TNA.

As such, she notes, the US likely froze funding to “get ahead of some members of Congress and those who would weaponise the allegations against the Biden administration, which had resumed funding for UNRWA after it had been stopped under President Trump”.

Despite all of this, humanitarians hope UNRWA can complete an internal review quickly enough to give Western capitals the political space to resume funding – especially Washington. Otherwise, the humanitarian disaster in Gaza - one that is completely man-made by Israel’s war and blockade– will get significantly worse.

Gazans, meanwhile, are left seeking answers as life in the besieged territory has ground to a halt.

“Before the attack, UNRWA was keeping the entirety of Gaza moving. It is truly the only thing that is stable here,” journalist Shahd Safi from Gaza told TNA.

“Now that it is defunded, they can’t provide for peoples’ needs, not that they could entirely in the first place.”

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl