Creating new perspectives since 2009

UNRWA’s neutrality leaves a gap for Israel’s impunity to thrive in its narrative

October 24, 2023 at 6:30 pm

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians that entered Gaza through Rafah border crossing on the Egyptian border arrive at the UNRWA warehouse, in Deir al Balah, Gaza on October 21, 2023. [Ashraf Amra – Anadolu Agency]

While humanity may have been the purpose of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ (UNRWA) pinned status on yesterday, it, instead, illustrated its principles of purported neutrality and how it translates into impunity for Israel.

“We are lost for words. We pay tribute to our 35 colleagues who have been killed in #Gaza since 7 October. We grieve and we remember. These are not just numbers. These are our friends and colleagues. Many were teachers in our schools. @UNRWA mourns this huge loss,” UNRWA’s post read.

Israel’s culpability is completely missing from the statement. If Israel is responsible for reducing Gaza to bombed rubble and murdered civilians, how does the principle of neutrality apply when stating facts? If Israel has even bombed humanitarian spaces – it has targeted UNRWA facilities now and in past bombardments – how does neutrality protect such spaces? Israel is destroying any semblance of neutrality, so what use does neutrality serve UNRWA and the Palestinian people?

UNRWA facilities are used as shelters for Palestinians displaced by Israeli bombing. A school bombed by Israel last week served as shelter for 4,000 Palestinians, according to UNRWA Commissioner General, Philippe Lazzarini. On this occasion, it was specified that “the school was hit during Israeli forces’ airstrikes and bombardment on the Gaza Strip.” UNRWA also stated it provided coordinates of its facilities, which points towards Israel using the coordinates in its precision strikes.

READ: The terror narratives protecting Israel’s colonial violence

It is typical of UNRWA to vary the language used in its statements. For example, in a statement just three days ago, Lazzarini stated, “For the past two weeks, the war has continued, unabated.” There is no war, but IsraelI colonial violence. Yet, the term used by Lazzarini conveys an equivalence that does not exist, possibly to uphold the so-called principles of neutrality.

Similarly to the pinned post on Twitter, the statement refers to colleagues “killed in this vicious war”, with no specific reference to Israel as the aggressor. Indeed, to emphasise neutrality, Lazzarini continues, “I, once again – recall the non-negotiable legal obligations incumbent on all parties to the conflict to protect the lives of civilians”, warning against attacks on infrastructure. Once again, such attacks are Israel’s specialty.

UNRWA is operating as a result of Israel’s existence, which created a perpetual dispossession and displacement of Palestinians. It is tasked with providing services for Palestinian refugees, funded by donors who are politically aligned with Israel and also operating under the warped principle of neutrality. There is no existent neutrality – only a tacit understanding that sustains the humanitarian paradigm at the expense of Palestinians. Even when UNRWA is targeted and its facilities destroyed and staff members killed by Israel, protecting the settler-colonial entity’s violence remains a priority.

UNRWA might do well to remember the history that catapulted it into existence. The ethnic cleansing of Gaza is unfolding within sight. Colonialism is not neutral and neither are UNRWA’s donors. Feigning neutrality when Israel murders the Agency’s employees only shows how much is amiss within the humanitarian paradigm UNRWA is part of.

READ: A peace conference or a racism conference?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.