Azmi Bishara: Punishing UNRWA is participating in genocide

Azmi Bishara: Punishing UNRWA is participating in genocide
Dr Azmi Bishara said the cutting of funds to UNRWA was a war crime and all those who have done this are complicit in Israel's genocide in Gaza.
10 min read
29 January, 2024
Dr Azmi Bishara said those cutting funding from UNRWA had made themselves complicit in genocide [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

The decision by the US and some of its allies to cut the funding of the UN Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) is a war crime and active complicity in the genocide Israel is perpetrating in Gaza, Director of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, Dr Azmi Bishara, said in a new interview.

Bishara also warned that the buffer zone being established by Israel in the Gaza Strip was an implementation of a "day-after" strategy.

Bishara said that the ICJ decision has given Egypt a practical cover to give a lifeline to Palestinians by delivering aid via the Rafah Crossing without asking Tel Aviv's permission. Such an Egyptian move would have cover under international law, he added, as it would be an implementation of the provisional measures ordered by the judges of the court in The Hague last week.


Bishara said, in the interview with Alaraby TV on Sunday evening that the behaviour of the US and the states who have followed it in cutting funding from UNRWA, is a practical contribution to a war crime, and the genocide underway in Gaza.

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In addition, he said, this action demonstrates the arrogant and racist way the Palestinian people are dealt with by these states, who treat Arabs, Muslims, and people of the Global South in general in a similar way – swiftly resorting to collective punishment.

He explained that UNRWA employed 30,000 staff members, 13,000 of them in Gaza; so if we suppose that 12 of them committed crimes – is it reasonable to punish 13,000 staff members while two million people are benefitting from the agency's services, he asked?

He also pointed out that the war on UNRWA is longstanding, and that Israel has long declared its intention to abolish this international agency because it is a living witness to the Nakba and the displacement of the Palestinians.


Regarding the endgame of the ongoing obliteration of Gaza that has continued for nearly four months, Bishara emphasised that this destruction is a strategy and goal in itself – to render Gaza uninhabitable, and this goal is being achieved. He warned that after Khan Younis, it would be Rafah's turn in the Israeli onslaught.

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He also pointed out that there has been no genuine withdrawal of Israel from any part of Gaza, even from those areas it claimed to have officially "withdrawn from", as they are constantly entering these areas as part of their search for Hamas leaders.

He pointed out that the buffer zone Israel has started to establish is a part of the "day after" strategy, and the plan is to cut off about 40 sq km - approximately one-ninth of Gaza's surface area, and turn it into a buffer zone.

The idea is that the plan will later be completed by imposing forces Israel trusts to supervise the Strip, with some form of Palestinian self-administration. Bishara asserted that all of this "cannot be confronted unless the Palestinian people unite their forces without relying on Western initiatives to rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority in order that it take on the task".


Regarding new initiatives aimed at securing a political agreement on a prisoner exchange, a ceasefire, or a truce, Bishara summed this up as "all talk and no action", indicating there were no practical new developments in this issue at the time of the interview.

He explained that the reason these "initiatives" existed at all was just that Israel's rulers needed to act as though they were concerned with the hostage issue in front of the Israeli public. As for the US, it is actually interested in securing a humanitarian truce; the hostages issue, and the "day after" the war, he said.

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However, he said none of the current proposals amounted to a ceasefire, which made them unacceptable to the resistance.

As for Qatar-mediated negotiations, these have centred around the release of prisoners in three stages. Bishara explained that the problem lay in having no guarantee of a full ceasefire. Here he added that the US doesn't want a ceasefire.

He noted that "America's diplomatic activities recently in the region have centred around one of Washington's fundamental priorities – getting back to the normalisation process between Israel and the Arabs in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. US officials have concluded that anyone who obstructs the normalisation process (i.e. Hamas) must be punished – so that the process may resume.  


Regarding what was leaked in Israeli media a few days ago, showing Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's incitement against Qatar, Bishara explained that it was an expression of political bankruptcy on the part of Netanyahu. This had translated into him arrogantly trying to project his failure concerning the Israeli hostages in Gaza by blaming Qatar.

Netanyahu is effectively saying to his people that the single solution to free the prisoners is through military force, despite the fact that the opposite is the case, according to Bishara – it is Qatar's engagement with Hamas, through its negotiations, that has been effective.

In Bishara's opinion, this thinking reflects a lack of understanding both of Qatar's relationship with Hamas. It is likely that this behaviour is the result of "Israel's pampering" by some Arab and Western states, in a way that has made Israel accustomed to dealing with others as though they will always act in accordance with Israeli requirements. He added that Netanyahu's incitement against Qatar and blackmail efforts would likely fail.


Bishara touched on the media's recent spotlight on Arab soldiers fighting in the ranks of the Israeli army and the struggle of the 48' Palestinians to obtain their rights and preserve their Palestinian national identity.

He went on to say that some had surrendered to performing military service in the army – in exchange for rights. However, with time it had become clear that the struggle for citizens' rights was inseparable from the fight to maintain their national (Palestinian) identity. This was because the preservation of this identity allowed them to maintain their historic status as original owners of the land (irrespective of Israel's confiscations and denial of these facts).

He said there were two different attitudes among the '48 Palestinians – with some believing they needed to be content with what they got from the state and its institutions, but others convinced that citizenship is a right, not a favour. This group believes their citizenship rights must be obtained at the same time they continue their struggle to maintain their (Palestinian) national identity.

However, Bishara acknowledged that in the current climate, fear was the prevailing force, and voices in the Arab community calling for accepting the status quo were louder, and this reality needed to be confronted.


Regarding the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision to impose provisional measures to prevent genocide in Gaza, Bishara believes there has been a mistake in the way it has been discussed: "It shouldn't be looked at as a real historic victory, nor as a major setback," he said.

He mentioned a number of positive aspects to the judges' decision, including their rejection of Israel's claim that the court didn't have jurisdiction, as well as rejecting Israel's claim that there was no genocide being perpetrated in Gaza. It also listed a set of facts which have long been parts of the Palestinian and Arab narrative.

Likewise, Bishara pointed out that the court hadn't called the October 7 operation "terrorist", and had used information which is part and parcel of Palestinian discourse, but which has long been totally rejected in the West, with those who use it accused of antisemitism.

He also pointed out that of the 15 judges who had agreed on this discourse, most were from countries allied to the US, which he saw as an additional positive point. This also applied to the judges' agreement that the danger to Palestinians urgently required the imposition of provisional measures.

The judges also agreed that the Palestinians constituted an ethnic group which was being threatened as a collective, and that it was plausible that what is being done to them could amount to genocide and must be stopped.

Bishara said there was no point in discussing and assessing the decision in terms of whether it was a victory or a defeat. Instead, he said, a decision containing new - and unprecedented - provisions had been issued, and it should be utilised in the political fight against the Occupation.  

Regarding his analysis as to why a ceasefire order wasn't issued by the court, Bishara set forth several possibilities. These included possible political factors like US pressure for the settlement to be issued in the form it was; or that the judges had already taken into account that if the decision were taken to the Security Council today by South Africa, it would be difficult for the veto-wielding powers to oppose it, in contrast to the probably outcome if the decision had included a ceasefire order.

Bishara stressed the importance of the decision was that it bolstered the political battle against Tel Aviv, and that "any pressure on Israel to alleviate the suffering of people in Gaza is useful at this stage - therefore it is necessary to use this decision to confront Israel and the world and the states which support Israel". As for the attacks and ridicule directed at the court's decision, he says this is "the talk of onlookers".

 Meanwhile, Bishara expressed his conviction that if Egypt provided Gaza with food and medicine today, it would be implementing the orders of the ICJ. Furthermore "Egypt was unanimously given international cover to save the Palestinians from annihilation, so let's apply pressure on the Arab parties to cooperate with international resolutions in order to save the Palestinian people - this is one way we need to monitor the implementation of the ICJ decision".

As for the heightened rhetoric from some Egyptian officials towards Israel, Bishara attached little importance to it, as the "escalation" occurred after Israel's accusation against Egypt at The Hague concerning the entry of aid and the Rafah crossing, after which "Cairo promised it would respond but it hasn't responded in any way".

He added that an effective response from Egypt would be to ensure the entry of its aid via the crossing, by way of implementing the ICJ decision.

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Regarding initiatives to prosecute Israel and the countries that have backed its aggression against the Gaza Strip, Bishara warned that the International Criminal Court (ICC) "only prosecutes the defeated, and I fear that it will prosecute Hamas and not Israel, and the public prosecutor (Karim Khan) is not trustworthy".

However, he explained that the ICJ decision has created a legal framework that the ICC cannot contradict, and went on to speak positively of excellent initiatives being taken in the US to prosecute US officials, who are accused of complicity in the killing of Palestinians.  

"Even politically, there has been a shift in tone among those Western states that unequivocally back Israel," according to Bishara, citing as examples British initiatives to end the war, and even statements "which shamelessly support Israel" like those of Germany's foreign minister (Annalena Baerbock).


The TV interview touched on the attack on a US military base on the Iraqi-Jordan-Syrian border on Sunday night, which led to the killing of three US soldiers. Bishara classed the incident as an "insignificant development", as many attacks have happened in a tit-for-tat fashion between the US and Iran via proxies in the past. While this might be followed by a more severe US response, he said that these are just both sides reacting against the other, but not in a way that would "lead to war between the US and Iran, because neither side wants a war".

While he agreed with the hypothesis that the atmosphere of aggression against Gaza had overlapped with the US-Iranian conflict in the region, he reminded viewers that this conflict has existed long before the Gaza war, recalling that the peak of the confrontation had been the assassinations of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad in early 2020.

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The (US-Iranian) conflict continues, and gnd period of heightened tensions and new developments in terms of the nature [of this conflict] occur periodically, such as what is happening in Yemen between the Houthis, Iran's allies, and the US. However, according to Bishara, "the situation is basically an ongoing process which won't morph into a regional war. This would require at the least, one side which really wanted that, so how could that occur when there are two sides – the US and Iran – both of whom are strongly opposed?".