At least 10 Western governments, including the US, UK and Germany, suspended their donations to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) last week after twelve of its staff were accused by Israel of involvement in the 7 October Hamas incursion. The agency is a lifeline for 5.6 million registered Palestinian refugees, so the decision to cut funds was a shock, especially as Gaza’s 2.2 million Palestinians are in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Responding to the shocking move by Israel’s allies, UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said on Saturday: “It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an Agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region.”
UNRWA has said that the funding suspension threatens the “lifesaving” humanitarian assistance it is providing in dire circumstances in Gaza. The agency is the largest UN body in Gaza, with some 13,000 employees in the sector – nearly all of them Palestinians – apart from its operations in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the occupied West Bank. It employs around 30,000 people altogether.
Here is what you need to know about UNRWA and why it has been a target for Israel since its creation.
UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly in order to assist and protect registered Palestinian refugees displaced in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of their land. Over 75,000 Palestinians, more than half the indigenous population, were forced to flee during the Nakba.
Created as a temporary agency until a just and durable solution for Palestine refugees was achieved, the UNRWA mandate was set to expire a year after its founding. Almost 76 years later, and with Israel refusing to allow Palestinian refugees to exercise their legitimate right to return to their homes and land, the agency continues to provide essential services in education, healthcare and humanitarian aid. It depends almost entirely on voluntary donations from UN member states.
The operational definition of Palestine refugees is people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and their descendants, and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood during the Nakba.
Israel wants to erase the Palestinian refugee issue
UNRWA’s very existence is a constant reminder of Israel’s historical crimes against the Palestinians.
The agency’s operations run directly counter to the infamous Zionist slogan attributed to the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, about Palestinian refugees: “The old will die and the young will forget.” As far as he was concerned, the refugee issue would die away naturally. It hasn’t happened. Palestinians not only retain strong memories of their homes, but also have a profound connection with their ancestral homeland, which has strengthened over time. Yes, the old people are dying out, but the young retain the knowledge of who they are and where they came from. In Israel’s view, the ongoing existence of UNRWA perpetuates this connection.
Not only has the UN agency provided essential humanitarian assistance to millions of Palestinian refugees; it is also unique as the entity that has fostered a sense of unity among Palestinians across the region, bridging national borders and overcoming the challenges posed by Israel’s territorial fragmentation of their land.
Rather than accepting that its own existence in Palestine that created the refugee issue in the first place, the occupation state blames UNRWA for failing to get the refugees integrated into the neighbouring countries where they live in dozens of refugee camps. Such camps are spread across the occupied Palestinian territories as well, in both Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Indeed, most of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are refugees whose ancestral homes are in what is now Israel.
Israel’s longstanding objective of erasing the Palestinian refugee issue altogether has led to it targeting not only UNRWA’s aid operations, but also any other organisations which aid and support the Palestinians in any way.
Following the Nakba, the UN created two paired bodies: UNRWA, to deliver humanitarian assistance, and the little-known UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). While UNRWA was mandated as a short-term relief mechanism, the commission held the obscure yet vital role of providing formal international protection to safeguard the basic rights of Palestinian refugees until an end to their forced exile. Today, 75 years on, only UNRWA remains, leaving millions of Palestinians vulnerable and exposed to what is referred to as a “protection gap”.
Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to exercise their rights under international law, including their right of return, prevented the UNCCP from fulfilling the aims of its mandate. UNRWA thus remains the only UN agency whose very existence is a constant reminder to the world of Israel’s historical crime and the obligations of the international community regarding the plight of Palestinian refugees.
Israel’s targeting of UNRWA
The occupation state has lobbied for UNRWA to be dissolved since the 1950s, claiming that it perpetuates the refugee issue rather than resolves it. Over the years, Israeli officials have repeatedly accused UNRWA of supporting terrorism, alleging that its facilities are used by Palestinian resistance groups to store weapons or launch attacks. UNRWA denies these politically-motivated allegations.
In 1982, Israel defence minister Ariel Sharon plotted for the PLO to take over UNRWA-run refugee camps in order to justify their destruction. The infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut took place when Israel’s allies entered the two refugee camps and killed up to 3,500 Palestinian civilians. It was one of UNRWA’s darkest moments.
UNRWA facilities have always been targeted directly by Israel in its military operations.
During the 2008-2009 military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, UNRWA schools and warehouses were bombed by the so-called Israel Defence Forces, prompting serious international concern. During the 2014 attack on the besieged enclave, UNRWA facilities were again targeted. Several UNRWA schools and shelters were hit, resulting in casualties and the displacement of Palestinian civilians. These incidents sparked international condemnation and calls for accountability. On several occasions, white phosphorus bombs have been used against UNRWA schools, in contravention of international law.
In 2018, during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza, UNRWA schools and health facilities once again found themselves targeted by Israel, as they were during the apartheid state’s 11-day bombardment of Gaza in May 2021.
Israel seeks to get UNRWA shut down
Days prior to the suspension of funding for UNRWA, former Israeli official Noga Arbell called for the “destruction of UNRWA” during a parliamentary discussion. “It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA,” she said, “and this destruction must begin immediately.”
The Israeli allegations about UNRWA employees — just 12 out of 30,000 altogether, remember — came on the same day that the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, ruled that charges brought by South Africa accusing Israel of carrying out acts of genocide in Gaza were “plausible”. The ICJ’s ruling ordered Israel to take immediate steps to prevent civilian casualties, stop and punish incitements to genocide, and enable the provision of urgently needed humanitarian assistance in the enclave.
Lex Takkenberg, a former UNRWA administrator who, during a 30-year career at the agency, worked as general counsel and chief ethics officer among other roles, commented on the timing of the funding suspension. “In view of the timing, of the substance, and of the reliance of the ICJ ruling on UNRWA reports, I can only see the allegations as a deliberate attempt to undermine the ruling and to deflect attention away.”
Takkenberg added that, “If there are 12 people who have misbehaved, they must be punished. And they have already been punished… and the organisation must go on doing what it must do, what the humanitarian imperative is dictating it to do, which it has done amazingly well.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the decision to stop funding UNRWA as a “collective punishment” of all Palestinian refugees across all operational sectors, not only those in Gaza. Collective punishment, Lavrov pointed out, is “prohibited by international humanitarian law.” Breaking international law, though, appears to be of no concern to Israel and its allies.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.