UNRWA will be forced to shut down its operations as soon as the end of the month if funding is not restored, according to agency director Philippe Lazzarini.
Donor countries including the US, the agency’s largest funder, suspended $440 million worth of aid after Israel made unverified allegations that a handful of UNRWA’s staff in Gaza were involved in the 7 October attacks led by Hamas.
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s relief chief, told the Security Council on Wednesday that the world body’s humanitarian response in the West Bank and Gaza “is dependent on UNRWA being adequately funded and operational” and called for “decisions to withhold funds” to be revoked.
Three Palestinian human rights groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – condemned the freezing of funding to UNRWA, saying this week that it “amounts to an act of collective punishment against 5.9 million Palestinian refugees registered” with the agency.
Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign chief, also argued against what he described as “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people. He said that the collapse of the agency would cause “hundreds of thousands of people” to perish.Petra De Sutter, the deputy prime minister of Belgium, this week described UNRWA as “irreplaceable in providing urgent and crucial humanitarian relief within Gaza.” One day before she made that comment, Israel bombed the Gaza offices of Belgium’s aid agency. The Palestinian human rights groups warned that the suspension of funds, “leading to the halt of humanitarian aid in Gaza, could constitute complicity in genocide.” This is particularly so in the case of the US and Germany, two of UNRWA’s primary donors.
The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention said that the decision to suspend funding “represents a shift by several countries from potential complicity in genocide to direct involvement in engineered famine.”
The institute added that “it is an attack on what remains of personal security, liberty, health and dignity in Palestine.”
The UN agency for Palestine refugees is the largest provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza, where the vast majority of the population depend on it “for their sheer survival,” UNRWA said on Thursday.
The first UN agency ever established, UNRWA provides government-like services to some six million Palestinian refugees in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million are refugees registered with UNRWA. More than 150 UNRWA staff are among the some 27,000 people killed in Gaza since 7 October and more than 140 of the agency’s facilities have been damaged or destroyed, including its Gaza City headquarters.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are staying at UNRWA facilities throughout Gaza. More than 350 displaced individuals have been killed and 1,255 injured in strikes on those UN facilities.
The agency, which relies on voluntary funding from UN member states, has seen decreased contributions in recent years while needs for its services have only grown. The UN secretary-general warned last summer that UNRWA was “on the verge of financial collapse.”
The three Palestinian human rights groups say that the timing of Israel’s allegations against UNRWA “suggests a malevolent motive” following the interim ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague finding that Israel is plausibly committing a genocide in Gaza.
One of several provisional measures issued by the court requires Israel to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”
The human rights groups said that the conveniently timed allegations “amount to reprisals against UNRWA, whose statements are referenced with support in the authoritative ICJ ruling against Israel.”
There is a past pattern of such behavior: Israel routinely bars entry to UN officials and other human rights investigators and refused to renew a visa for Lynn Hastings, the former top UN humanitarian aid official for the West Bank and Gaza.
The state apparently refused to allow entry to Volker Türk, the UN human rights chief, during his five-day visit to the region in early November last year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told UN ambassadors during a meeting in Jerusalem this week that UNRWA was “totally infiltrated” by Hamas and must be replaced.
“I say this with great regret because we hoped that there would be an objective and constructive body to offer aid,” Netanyahu told diplomats. “We need such a body today in Gaza, but UNRWA is not that body.”
Netanyahu also complained about UN scrutiny of Israel’s actions, repeated debunked atrocity claims and said that his country was “fighting the war of civilization against barbarism.”Netanyahu singled out UNRWA for bringing forward information cited by South Africa in its genocide complaint against Israel at The Hague.
Other Israeli officials are less eager than Netanyahu to see the immediate collapse of UNRWA.
An unnamed senior official told The Times of Israel that “if UNRWA ceases operating on the ground, this could cause a humanitarian catastrophe that would force Israel to halt its fighting against Hamas.”
A humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza has been underway for months after Israel cut the supply of electricity, fuel, water, food and medical supplies at the outset of its counteroffensive.
Some of those life essentials have been restored to Gaza, but at a level that falls far short of meeting the population’s basic needs as Israeli restrictions and military operations prevent commercial activity and the delivery of aid at scale.
Christian Lindmeier, spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said that the allegations against UNRWA staff are “a distraction from what is really going on every day, every hour, every minute in Gaza.”
“It is a distraction from preventing an entire population from access to clean water, food, shelter,” he added. “It is a distraction from preventing electricity from coming into Gaza for more than 100 days.”
Right of return
Netanyahyu’s claim of regret is belied by Israel’s decades-long campaign to shut down UNRWA.
The three Palestinian human rights groups said that Israel’s desire to destroy the agency is “driven by the core issue embedded in UNRWA’s mandate: the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III).”
That resolution was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 following the forcible expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland by pre-state Zionist militias and the Israeli military.
“Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” the UN resolution states. It adds that refugees who choose not to return should be compensated for loss of or damage to their property.
Israel has denied Palestinians from exercising their right to return to lands it now occupies because doing so “would alter the demographic character of Israel to the point of eliminating it as a Jewish state,” as the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia stated in a 2017 report.
“Our organizations stress that UNRWA must be preserved as an institution to protect the rights of Palestinians,” the three aforementioned human rights groups said.
Palestinian refugees are “still systematically denied their inalienable right of return and left for generations to live in refugee camps, denied their freedom of movement and basic human rights,” the groups added.The Palestinian rights groups note that the countries that have suspended support for UNRWA – which in addition to the US include Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Japan, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania – have disregarded their appeals to stop arming Israel.
The UK’s Sky News reported this week that it had seen Israel’s intelligence documents that purportedly support its claims that UNRWA staff are connected to Hamas.
Sky News said that the dossier, which has been shared with foreign governments but not UN authorities, alleges that six UNRWA employees “infiltrated” Israel from Gaza on 7 October. Four of those six employees “were allegedly involved in kidnapping Israelis, while another worker is said to have provided ‘logistics support,’” according to Sky News.
Initial reports last week stated that Israel claimed that 12 UNRWA employees were involved in the 7 October attacks.
Sky News added that Israel’s dossier claims that 10 percent of UNRWA’s 12,000 employees in Gaza are operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian faction engaged in armed resistance. The dossier also claims that around half of UNRWA’s Gaza staff are “first-degree relatives with a Hamas operative.”
Israel’s dossier apparently attempts to paint UNRWA’s coordination with local authorities as a form of subordination to Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza’s internal affairs since 2007.
“The Israeli intelligence documents make several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA,” the outlet stated.
The UNRWA dossier as reported by Sky News appears to be similar to past documents produced by Israel and its proxies attempting to link Palestinian nongovernmental organizations to resistance groups in an effort to starve them of their European funding.
European states said that they weren’t convinced by a secret dossier provided by Israel to prove its claims against several prominent Palestinian civil society groups that were declared as “terrorist organizations” in 2021.The basis of the dossier are the testimonies of two men who were fired from one organization for suspected financial misconduct.
The lawyer for one of the men alleges that he may have been subjected to ill-treatment or torture during his interrogation.
The two men were shown in the secret dossier, the contents of which were revealed by +972 Magazine, to lack familiarity with the other Palestinian organizations that their testimony was used against.
Statements by Israeli officials suggest that the current allegations against UNRWA employees may be based on information extracted from detainees, giving rise to concerns of torture and ill-treatment.