Amid Israeli attacks and western complicity: UNRWA’s future work in Gaza

Salma Abdel-Moneim, Monday 5 Feb 2024

The decision by several countries to suspend funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees following Israeli allegations will affect its ability to fulfil its crucial role in Gaza and the region.

UNRWA s future work in Gaza


The suspension of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) by several countries starting on 26 January and due to Israeli accusations against some of its employees participating in the 7 October attacks raises concerns about the agency’s ability to fulfil its crucial role amid existing funding shortages and exacerbated by the rising number of Palestinian refugees.

According to UN data, the agency assists approximately six million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Gaza. Its operations heavily rely on voluntary donations from major contributors such as the US, the EU, and others.

UNRWA stands as the sole guarantor of the international status of the Palestinian refugees, given the absence of other relevant international organisations in refugee affairs.

Since the 7 October attacks, humanitarian agencies have faced significant constraints in providing aid to civilians in Gaza due to Israeli airstrikes.

Beyond restricting aid, Israel has, according to UN data as of 15 January, killed over 150 UNRWA employees and reported around 203 incidents affecting UNRWA buildings, causing direct injuries and collateral damage to more than 68 different facilities.

Moreover, on 26 January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a preliminary judgement and interim measures against Israel, responding to a lawsuit filed by South Africa accusing Israel of violating the UN Genocide Convention in Gaza. Despite the court not immediately halting the hostilities, compliance with the interim measures would require a substantial ceasefire or a significant reduction in military operations to avoid violating the court’s order.

It is noteworthy that the court based its acceptance of South Africa’s lawsuit and rejection of the Israeli defence on letters from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 18 December and a report from UNRWA and 35 human rights rapporteurs on 5 January, providing compelling evidence of genocide violations. An Israeli official confirmed the sharing of information about 12 employees allegedly involved in the 7 October attacks with both UNRWA and the US.

In retaliation, the US decided to temporarily suspend all new financial aid to UNRWA, echoing Israeli claims of agency employees engaging in violence with Hamas. US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller stated that the US would halt additional funding while the UN investigates these allegations. Israel welcomed this decision, urging other donor countries to stop their support for the agency, citing its alleged backing of Hamas in the 7 October attacks.

This call has found widespread acceptance, particularly among Western nations. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tiani announced the suspension of Italian funding, and Canada’s International Development Minister declared a halt to all additional funding pending the results of the investigation. Australia, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands also chose to cease all financial aid to the agency in Gaza, disregarding the catastrophic humanitarian conditions of civilians in the region.

In response to the accusations, UNRWA swiftly dismissed some of its employees linked to them and pledged a comprehensive investigation. Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner, described the nations suspending funding as “shocking” and urged them to reconsider, emphasising the threat to ongoing humanitarian work in the area, especially in Gaza.

The agency’s prompt dismissal of employees before the investigation concludes signals its commitment to containing the situation and proving its neutrality. Israel, however, wants to terminate the agency altogether, with Israel’s foreign minister stating that “UNRWA should not be part of the day after the war in Gaza.”

The timing of Israel’s allegations against UNRWA, more than 120 days after the Gaza operations began, raises questions about the delay in bringing forward these charges if there is credible evidence against UNRWA employees.

The accusations against UNRWA by Israel appear to be baseless, given the agency’s history of being a target for Israeli criticism, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocating its dissolution in 2017. Israel’s decision to make these allegations now seems aimed at disrupting the agency’s work to continue implementing its policies of collective punishment and potential genocide against the Palestinian people.

While UNRWA will be affected by the temporary financial cuts from major donors, the formation of a neutral UN committee to investigate these accusations may alter the situation. If any individual is found culpable, they should be held accountable as an employee who failed in their duties, rather than implicating the entire organisation serving a large population of Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

Assuming the allegations are accurate, any decision to halt or limit aid to UNRWA will exacerbate the dire conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, subjecting them to further suffering amid ongoing Israeli attacks

*The writer is a researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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