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Why is Israel trying to destroy UNRWA?

Why are some countries suspending aid to UNRWA and does Israel want to destroy it?
5 min read
28 January, 2024
The New Arab looks at the recent suspension of funds to UNRWA and asks why Israel wants to destroy the agency.
UNRWA provides life-saving services to Gaza but could collapse due to key donors suspending funds [Gaza]

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has recently faced potentially crippling funding cuts after some of its staff were accused by Israeli authorities of being involved in the October 7 attack.

These allegations then led to 9 Western countries to suspend funding to UNRWA, led by the US, which is the agency's biggest donor.

The timing of Israel’s allegations against UNRWA have struck many as suspect, given they came just hours after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled broadly in favour of South Africa in its genocide case against Israel.

However, Israel has long waged a veritable war against UNRWA, which provides a host of vital services for Palestinian refugees, including around 2 million people in Gaza. This includes hundreds of documented attacks on its facilities in Gaza, with over 150 UNRWA staff killed by the Israeli military during its current war on Gaza and 300 people in total being killed due to attacks on the agency's facilities.

Israeli officials have openly said they want to destroy UNRWA and stop it providing services to millions of Palestinian refugees.

The New Arab looks into some of the factors that could underly this unprecedented action against UNRWA by Israel and its Western allies.

Is the action against UNRWA related to the International Court of Justice ruling against Israel?

Over the course of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at least nine countries – the US, UK, Germany, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland and Australia – announced they were suspending funding to UNRWA.

This decision by so many key donors followed Israel's claim that 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7 attacks – claims backed by information gathered from interrogations by Shin Bet, a senior Israeli official told Axios.

Observers have called the response of the Western states an overreaction, as UNRWA employs over 30,000 people, including 13,000 in Gaza. The funding suspension also went ahead despite UNRWA announcing an investigation and firing 9 out of the 12 employees implicated by Israel.

The countries who have suspended funds to UNRWA are all strong supporters of Israel, most notably the US, while all of them also opposed South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the ICJ.

Several, including the US and UK, have spoken out against the ICJ’s ruling against Israel. Many of the nations expected the court to throw the case out, as Israel itself did. The ruling, which includes calling for Israel to take measures to prevent genocide, puts many of Israel’s allies in difficult positions and could even implicate them in genocide. For this reason, many have considered the attack on UNRWA as a wider warning to the UN.

Moreover, UNRWA often provides independent witnesses of Israel's crimes, documenting military attacks on schools, hospitals and other civil infrastructure, as well as witnessing first hand the human cost of the crippling total siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza. 

Michael Bueckert, a journalist and pro-Palestine activist from Canada, wrote on X:

“Impossible not to see this as a coordinated act of revenge against Palestinians and the UN over the ICJ decision. The same day that the ICJ finds that Palestinians have a right to be protected from genocide, the West colludes in the starvation of its victims. Depravity on display.”

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Israel’s broader animosity towards UNRWA

Whatever the truth in Israel’s allegations against UNRWA staff, it has not missed the opportunity to use this as a pretext to try to destroy the agency.

After the US announced cutting funds to UNRWA, Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz took to X, where he called for an end to the agency’s involvement in Gaza, writing:

“We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza.”

The chilling phrase used by Katz in his statement is his accusation that the agency “perpetuates the refugee issue”.

This has been interpreted as meaning that they want rid of UNRWA because it is allowing Palestinians to live and procreate. Many would consider this the language of genocide, with UN experts already warning that those who defund Gaza could be violating the Genocide Convention.

Earlier in January, Noga Arbel, a former Israeli official and now head of the right-wing Kohelet Foundation, spoke to the Knesset where she said the main threat to Israel was UNRWA and that “it will be impossible to win this war if we do not destroy UNRWA”. She further describes the current war as an" opportunity" for Israel to send UNRWA “to hell” and stop it from "allowing terrorists to be born" by providing services to Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA is one of the few things in the occupied Palestinian territories that Israel does not control.

With the Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz saying UNRWA must not have any place in "the day after" and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Saturday saying that Israel and not UNRWA will control the dispersion of aid in post-war Gaza, it is clear that Israel sees UNRWA's destruction or invalidation as key to its current war on the Palestinian enclave.