Several of Israel’s allies have suspended funding to the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) following allegations that 12 of its employees were involved in the 7 October attacks led by Hamas.
The Israeli allegations appear to be based off of confessions made by Palestinian detainees, likely under conditions of torture. Human rights experts warn that suspending aid to UNRWA at present is a violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention.
UNRWA is the principal provider of humanitarian assistance and second-largest employer in the Gaza Strip, where two-thirds of its population of 2.3 million Palestinians are refugees.
Israel prevents Palestinian refugees 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.
Palestinians who sought protection under the UN flag have been killed as UNRWA facilities have been repeatedly struck. Last week, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed after Israeli tank fire hit a building in an UNRWA training compound in Khan Younis where 30,000 people were sheltering after being displaced from other areas of Gaza.
More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October and thousands more are missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings while many others have died from hunger and disease after Israel imposed a complete siege on the territory.In recent days, Israeli protesters blocked aid trucks from delivering urgently needed assistance through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The UN says that Israel is systematically denying humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in northern Gaza, where people are increasingly starving.
Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said that before the defunding of UNRWA, “famine was imminent” in Gaza. With the “collective punishment” over “the alleged actions of a small number of employees,” Fakhri added, “famine is now inevitable.”
Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the embattled agency, said that he was shocked by the suspension of funding after UNRWA terminated the contracts of the accused staff members. He said that the “highest investigative authority in the UN system, has already been seized of this very serious matter.”
Lazzarini said that it was “immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals.”
“The lives of people in Gaza depend on this support and so does regional stability,” he added.
UN to cooperate in prosecution
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said on Sunday that “of the 12 people implicated, nine were immediately identified and terminated” by UNRWA. One of the UNRWA employees “is confirmed dead, and the identity of the two others is being clarified,” he added.
He signaled the UN’s readiness to cooperate in the prosecution of the accused individuals.
The decision to suspend support of UNRWA affects virtually all Palestinians enduring Israel’s brutal military campaign in Gaza, which the International Court of Justice said on Friday was plausibly a genocide.The move also stands to harm millions of Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria who depend on the chronically underfunded agency for government-like services.
The US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Finland based their decision to suspend funding to UNRWA on information provided by Israel’s domestic spy agency the Shin Bet and military intelligence.
An unnamed senior Israeli official told Axios reporter Barak Ravid, himself an Israeli military reservist who is frequently fed information by that country’s spy agencies, that “a lot of the intelligence is a result of interrogations of militants who were arrested during the [7 October] attack.”
This gives rise to serious concern that the aforementioned countries are withholding critically needed assistance to millions of Palestinians on the basis of intelligence that was extracted under torture.
Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has previously admitted that measures that may amount to the use of torture are being used against alleged members of the Nukhba commando unit of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.
Statements made by Israel Prison Service director Katy Perry and other officials strongly suggest that Palestinians suspected of affiliation with the Nukhba force are being systematically tortured.
Israel’s Channel 12 network reported last month on a “high-level, classified foreign ministry report” that lays out a three-stage process by which UNRWA would be pushed out of Gaza. The first stage “involves a comprehensive report on alleged UNRWA cooperation” and “entanglement” with Hamas, The Times of Israel reported.
In this latest attack on UNRWA, which Israel has long sought to defame and destroy, Tel Aviv may both be following that foreign ministry plan and operating from a familiar playbook.
In 2016, Israel arrested Mohammed El Halabi, an aid worker with the international Christian charity World Vision, over fabricated charges of funneling international aid to Hamas.
In their classified ruling made in 2022, a panel of Israeli judges based their verdict almost entirely on a confession that El Halabi purportedly made to an informant after he was allegedly beaten by Israeli interrogators.
The UN human rights office has “continuously raised serious concerns” in El Halabi’s case over “cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment that may amount to torture.”
The Australian government, which provided around a quarter of World Vision’s budget in Gaza between 2014 and 2016, commissioned an external audit that “found no evidence of diversion of funds and no material evidence that El Halabi was part of or working for Hamas.”
Despite this, Australia suspended its funding to World Vision in Gaza, which in turn suspended its operations in the territory.
World Vision stood behind El Halabi and stated upon his conviction in 2022 that “the arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and [12-year] sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Israel similarly criminalized several prominent Palestinian human rights and social service organizations, including three groups engaged with the International Criminal Court’s investigation in Palestine. Israel branded the groups as “terror” organizations in an effort to starve them of funding from European donors.
UNRWA attempted to safeguard its operations in Gaza by summarily terminating the employees that Israel accuses of involvement in the 7 October attacks.
“Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” Lazzarini said on Friday – language that the UN secretary-general echoed on Sunday.
Analyst Mouin Rabbani said in an interview with journalist Owen Jones that the UN “made several missteps” in its response to Israel’s accusations. He said that UNRWA’s termination of its employees “can be read as somehow validating” Israel’s accusations and may have been viewed by the US and others as “an admission of guilt.”
That the Israeli accusations appear to be based on confessions extracted under torture “should raise question marks pending further investigation,” Rabbani added.
Three prominent Palestinian human rights organizations – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – accuse Israeli authorities of torturing and otherwise abusing people arbitrarily arrested in Gaza.
The Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor also says that it has collected testimonies “concerning the systematic torture and inhumane treatment meted out to Palestinian detainees in Israeli army camps” after being forcibly disappeared in Gaza.
“Directly violating Genocide Convention”
The US announced that it was suspending its support of UNRWA immediately after the International Court of Justice in The Hague made a much-anticipated interim ruling that orders Israel to halt genocidal acts in Gaza.
The World Court issued several provisional measures while it considers the full case brought by South Africa, which accuses Israel of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention.
One of the six provisional measures ordered by the court requires that Israel “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.”Under the Genocide Convention, states have a duty to prevent acts of genocide.
By sanctioning UNRWA, states are “collectively punishing millions of Palestinians at the most critical time,” Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, stated on Saturday.
By doing so, Albanese added, those countries are “most likely violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention.”She added that the defunding of UNRWA “overtly defies the International Court of Justice’s order to allow effective humanitarian assistance ‘to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in Gaza.’”
“This will entail legal responsibilities – or the demise of the international legal system,” Albanese said.
Francis Boyle, the first lawyer to successfully argue a genocide case at the International Court of Justice, said that states were going beyond aiding and abetting Israel by cutting off funding to UNRWA.
Boyle told journalist Sam Husseini that “these states are now also directly violating Genocide Convention article 2(c) by themselves: ‘Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.’”
“Trying to eliminate UNRWA altogether”
“Israel has always hated UNRWA,” former senior UN official Craig Mokhiber said during an interview with journalist Katie Halper.“UNRWA represents a lifeline that prevents them from totally destroying civilian life in Gaza,” Mokhiber explained, and that’s “a threat to Israel’s ethnonationalist plan for the occupied territory.”
He added that the survivors of the genocide in Gaza “will rely upon a well-functioning UNRWA. That’s going to be the difference between life and death today and for many days and weeks and months going forward.”As the scholar Dalal Yassine wrote for The Electronic Intifada last year, “for decades, Israel and its supporters in the United States have targeted UNRWA.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has called for UNRWA to be dismantled because it “perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem.”
“The Trump administration adopted similar rhetoric and sought to change the definition of a Palestinian refugee,” Yassine observed.The Biden administration renewed funding to UNRWA that was cut by Trump but “linked funding to a number of issues related to the identity and national rights of the Palestinian people,” according to Yassine.
The eminent Palestinian author and historian Salman Abu Sitta told The Electronic Intifada last year that the US and Israel were “trying to eliminate UNRWA altogether by transferring its activities to other agencies.”
“This means that Palestinians will not have a right of return and they can only seek food and shelter elsewhere, away from their homeland,” he added.
UNRWA has been dealt a potential death blow as 1.3 million Palestinians are now concentrated in Rafah along Gaza’s southern boundary with Egypt. The UN human rights office has raised “grave alarm” that they “may be forced out of Gaza” with any escalation of hostilities in that area, which may be imminent.
Indicating a growing division among European countries regarding Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, at least two states have declared their intention to continue funding UNRWA.
Instead of sanctioning UNRWA, the government of Norway reaffirmed its support of the Palestinian people through the agency.
“We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done, and what UNRWA stands for,” Norway’s representative office to the Palestinian Authority stated on Saturday.
“The organization’s tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, the West Bank and the region are playing a crucial role in distributing aid, saving lives and safeguarding basic needs and rights,” Norway’s office added.
Likewise, Ireland’s foreign minister said that the country, which provided $19.5 million in 2023, “has no plans to suspend funding for UNRWA’s vital Gaza work.”