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Israel and its allies seek to annihilate UNRWA and the Palestinian people

January 29, 2024 at 10:15 am

Displaced Palestinian people sit on benches as they wait outside a clinic of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024 [AFP via Getty Images]

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on South Africa’s legal case about Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza is the latest example of normalising the settler-colonial entity’s existence and its actions. In its interim ruling, which consisted of six provisional measures, the ICJ failed to call for a ceasefire. “Israel must prevent and punish incitement of genocidal acts,” determined the court in language that is much reminiscent of the UN’s futile condemnations which have become normalised rhetoric. The wording used by the ICJ detracts from the fact that incitement to genocide has already led to genocidal acts, and that by now, there is an overt and prominent web of international complicity in them.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared repeatedly that Israel will continue “defending itself”, a statement that would ring ludicrous if international law was truly upheld. For what is Israel defending itself against? A colonised population whose legitimate right to resist has been annihilated by the coloniser’s complicit diplomatic allies and which is facing famine, as planned very deliberately by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

When humanitarian “pauses” became the predominant narrative and humanitarian aid started trickling into Gaza, the relief was inadequate and Israeli soldiers fired on Palestinians attempting to reach the delivery trucks. In comparison to the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, Israel’s attack on humanitarian aid to enforce famine upon the Palestinian population in Gaza garnered less international attention.

After the ICJ ruling, Netanyahu decided it was time to up the annihilation ante.

And once again, the focus is shifted away from the Palestinian people and onto the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees, as nine countries – the US, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Italy, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK – decided to suspend funding to the agency after Israeli allegations that twelve staff members were involved in the Hamas incursion into Israel on 7 October last year. No evidence was presented; just allegations against twelve employees out of 30,000 across the agency’s areas of operation, upon which the nine governments acted like the obedient lapdogs that they are.

A UN press release by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s spokesman noted that UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini was asked to investigate the allegations, and that “any UNRWA employee shown to have participated or abetted what transpired on 7 October or in any other criminal activity, be terminated immediately and referred for potential criminal prosecution.” Guterres also called upon countries to resume funding, stating, “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

READ: Turkiye expresses concern over suspension of aid by some countries to UN agency for Palestinians

Former UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness pointed out, though, that: “The Israelis have said they cannot win the war on Gaza unless UNRWA is disbanded. So what clearer signal do you want?”

Truthfully, Israel is in no hurry to “win” in Gaza. The more it can extend the parameters of what violence the world will normalise, the more Israel gains in impunity. However, Gunness makes a valid point in reiterating Israel’s intent to have UNRWA shut down. Earlier in January, former Israeli foreign minister official Noga Arbell called for this to happen: “It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA.”

‘Palestinians don’t benefit from ICJ ruling, they’re still dying’ – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Of course, at this very precarious moment, Arbell’s words ring with much more urgency and clarity of genocidal intent. UNRWA provides essential services upon which Palestinian refugees depend, despite its many shortcomings due to the agency’s existence serving the international community’s humanitarian paradigm which, in turn, serves Israel’s colonisation plans. However, Israel’s concern is that the very existence of UNRWA points towards its own historical trajectory of ethnic cleansing from 1948 until today, which in turn affirms the need for the agency. It is a cycle in which only one winner emerges, either way, and Palestinians remain pawns in the game because UNRWA takes priority, either because Israel calls for its dismantling, or because Palestinians are in dire need of its services.

Had famine not reached Gaza, how much would Israel’s renewed attack on the agency have garnered attention? In 2018, the Trump administration cut off US funding for UNRWA, and allegations of embezzlement of funds and staff misconduct surfaced to substantiate the US decision. A similar pattern has now emerged, this time linking UNRWA staff members to alleged involvement in the Hamas-led incursion into Israel.

In December, Israeli media revealed a classified foreign ministry report seeking to eliminate UNRWA from Gaza in three steps: alleged cooperation of UNRWA staff members with Hamas; a reduction of UNRWA services in Gaza; and ultimately the transfer of all of the agency’s duties to the entity governing Gaza after Israel decides that it has quenched its thirst for death and destruction.

READ: Belgium calls on Israel to ‘fully implement’ UN Court’s Gaza rulings

During the Trump administration, the joint US-Israeli aim was to alter the definition of who qualifies as a Palestinian refugee. Netanyahu has gone many steps further; without Palestinians in the enclave, refugees or otherwise, UNRWA would not need to function in Gaza. And this time, it has the unabashed backing of nine countries so far, all of which are complicit in using starvation as a collective punishment and weapon of war in Gaza. Nine countries which have determined UNRWA’s funding levels throughout the years have now determined a painful extermination for Palestinians.

The latest development should get the entire world thinking and up in arms. What right does the UN have to determine that Palestinians only qualify for attention under the humanitarian paradigm; and by what right do powerful member states – many of them former colonial powers – dictate that Palestinians in Gaza do not deserve access to the basic essentials that they need to survive?

Putting UNRWA in the spotlight has been a tactic that Israel has used frequently, and one that the UN has allowed. UNRWA exists for a purpose that is more political than humanitarian due to the history that founded it, and which allowed Israeli colonialism to thrive while preventing Palestinians from their political right to return to their land and homes. UNRWA’s almost total dependence on donor countries – many of them Israel’s allies and all of which are two-state proponents – has in turn forced Palestinians into what is clearly a vicious cycle of dependency. But the focus has always been the agency’s survival as an entity, rather than it being given the freedom to accomplish its objectives for the benefit of Palestinian refugees. This means that Palestinians have long been marginalised from the dominant narrative on UNRWA as a result of Israel’s dehumanisation of the population that it has colonised for decades.

The UN has sounded the alarm over the funding suspension, knowing full well that some of its member states are complicit in Israel’s aim of destroying UNRWA to make Gaza even more susceptible to annihilation. Since the UN’s power lies largely with the same member states whose allegiance to Israel is paramount, what stops this collective imperialist endeavour from committing genocide against the Palestinian population? They are already all complicit in this most serious of crimes.

Europe exposed: Is the EU a direct partner in the Israeli genocide in Gaza?

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