Cutting UNRWA funding is 'complicity in genocide': Palestinian activists in occupied West Bank

Cutting UNRWA funding is 'complicity in genocide': Palestinian activists in occupied West Bank
Funding cuts to UNRWA by Western countries come while a humanitarian crisis takes place in Gaza due to Israel's war.
5 min read
West Bank
07 February, 2024
UNRWA provides basic services to around 5 million Palestinians in 68 refugee camps across four countries. [Qassam Muaddi/TNA]

Defunding the UN Agency for the Relief of Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) is "complicity in the genocide", according to Palestinian activists for refugee rights in the occupied West Bank. 

UNRWA, which was created following the mass expulsion by Zionist forces of Palestinians in 1948, provides basic humanitarian aid and services to millions of Palestinians recognised as refugees in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It is the largest services provider and one of the major employers in the Gaza Strip, employing 80 per cent of whom are refugees.

In late January, Israel claimed that 12 UNRWA employees in the Gaza Strip had taken part in the 7 October attack on Israel. Israel also claimed that one out of every 10 UNRWA employees in Gaza has 'links' to Palestinian armed groups.

UNRWA announced that it immediately terminated the contracts of the employees in question. UNRWA's Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said there was still no proof to back Israeli claims that some UNRWA staff took part in Hamas' 7 October attacks. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also admitted that evidence for Israel's allegations was yet 'to be born out', meaning there is no actual evidence provided as of yet, despite the US administration cutting funds.

The US was the first country to suspend financial aid to UNRWA; it used to contribute US$343.0 million. Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Estonia, Japan, Austria and Romania also cut off funding a day after.

"The defunding of UNRWA is a direct participation in the genocide against the Palestinian people currently taking place in Gaza", Lubna Shomali, spokesperson for the Badil Center for Refugee Rights, the leading Palestinian NGO that advocates for the rights of refugees, told The New Arab.

"There is currently a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza created by the Israeli war, which is why the International Court of Justice, in its ruling on the case presented by South Africa, ordered provisional measures to prevent genocide, including allowing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza", said Shomali.

"Defunding UNRWA, the main humanitarian aid provider in Gaza, is a violation of the ICJ provisional measures, and therefore, a participation in genocide", she explained.

"If UNRWA's services stop, over two million Palestinians in Gaza, who are in critical need of aid, will be abandoned to hunger, disease and homelessness", added Shomali. "Millions of Palestinian refugees in other places also depend on UNRWA for basic services, and they too will be affected".

"But there is a political goal that is intended by defunding UNRWA, which is ending the Palestinian refugees question, based on the Israeli idea that it is UNRWA that keeps the Palestinian refugees question alive. This is a false idea because the Palestinian refugees' right to return is enshrined in the UN resolution 194, and it is, therefore, a matter of international law, regardless of the existence of UNRWA", she added.

The UN Resolution 194 was voted on 11 December 1948 amid the Palestinian Nakba. It states, "Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or property damage".

After the end of the 1948 war, Israel banned all Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes and property in violation of the inalienable rights of refugees noted in international law and conventions. For millions, UNRWA became the only provider of health education and food.

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"Today, UNRWA provides elementary and middle-school education to Palestinian refugees through hundreds of schools", Mohammad Taha, head of the Popular Services Committee of the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, told TNA.

"UNRWA also provides primary health care and basic medication for diabetes, blood pressure and other common illnesses through medical centres in all refugee camps, and advanced medical treatment through agreements with various hospitals", he detailed.

"UNRWA is also responsible for the infrastructure, like sewage lines, and public hygiene, like garbage collection. UNRWA also has a social aid program for hundreds of thousands of refugee families in need, and all these services are at risk of stopping", he stressed.

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"The Palestinian refugees' plight and the right of return are what is really targeted here, and this is not the first time", said Taha. "When the Trump administration cut the funding of UNRWA, it was based only on political reasons, without any excuses like Israel's current claims, but today there are 15 countries who joined the Israeli effort to end the Palestinian refugees' by ending UNRWA".

"During the crisis created by the Trump administration's funds cut, UNRWA's commissioner General Philippe Lazarini proposed that the UNRWA responsibilities be delegated to other UN agencies, including the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR)", noted Taha.

"All the Palestinian camps refused because the difference between Palestinian refugees and other refugees is that we are deprived of our right to return, which is why we continue to be refugees, and therefore UNRWA's mandate ends only when we are allowed to return", he said. 

"This is why Israel believes that ending UNRWA is synonymous with ending the right to return, but they are mistaken, not only because the right of return is enshrined in international law, but also because it is enshrined in our consciousness, and it will be not erased, even if UNRWA disappears", he added.

Refugees constitute 56 per cent of the Palestinian people worldwide. The refugee question has been central in Palestinian politics since the Nakba and is a crucial issue during negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian right to return was not addressed, being delayed for 'final status' negotiations alongside settlements, natural resources and borders.