UN undermines justice by tiptoeing around Israel

A home hit by an Israeli artillery shell in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, 24 August.

Ashraf Amra APA images

As Gaza reported its first cases of COVID-19 outside of quarantine centers, the United Nations agency that serves Palestinian refugees sounded the alarm over the closure of the territory’s sole power plant.

In a statement on Tuesday, UNRWA pointed to 14 years of “illegal blockade” and more than 10 consecutive nights of bombing on the territory – including the targeting of one of its schools.

But it did not say who cut off the flow of donor-funded fuel to Gaza, forcing the power plant to shut down and reducing electricity availability to only two or three hours per day.

The agency did not name the state violating international humanitarian law by denying the free passage of “relief consignments, in this case, fuel for electricity.”

And it did not identify the military whose warplanes have been terrorizing Gaza’s civilian population, some 1.4 million of them refugees, night after night.

Erasure of Israeli responsibility

The erasure of Israel’s responsibility for Gaza’s woes by UNRWA and others undermines the repeated calls for accountability coming from the human rights experts and investigators commissioned by the United Nations.

Subsequent commissions of inquiry formed by the UN Human Rights Council investigating Israeli crimes in the West Bank and Gaza have pointed to the lack of access to justice for Palestinians in Israeli courts.

And yet during his address to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN secretary-general’s Middle East peace envoy, called on Israel to investigate recent street executions of Palestinians who did not pose an imminent threat.

Mladenov willfully ignores the human rights organization B’Tselem’s characterization of the Israeli military’s self-investigation system as “a fig leaf for the occupation.”

The military’s investigations only probe the conduct of low-ranking soldiers. Orders are never placed under investigation – only alleged breaches of orders.

A shoot-to-kill policy against Palestinians comes from the very top of the Israeli government.

Some 465 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli occupation forces since the beginning of 2015, nearly half of them during unarmed protests along the Gaza-Israel boundary.

UN investigators have called on third party states to arrest those responsible for international crimes related to Israel’s use of lethal force against Gaza demonstrators.

The number of Israeli soldiers convicted over the death of a Palestinian during the past decade can be counted on one hand. For Mladenov to call on Israel to investigate the street execution of Palestinians is to willfully ignore this culture of impunity and tacitly encourage it.

Two-state absolutism

Mladenov has not thrown his support behind Palestinian endeavors to seek justice at the International Criminal Court, though he unhesitatingly supported such efforts in other country situations.

Instead, he and the UN secretary-general continue to practice the absolutist doctrine of a negotiated two-state solution, despite the disaster such an approach has wrought when not coupled with any measures toward accountability.

He applauded the freshly inked UAE-Israel agreement to formalize relations and the afterthought of a commitment by Israel to suspend the official annexation of West Bank land in return.

“Annexation would constitute a most serious violation of international law, effectively close the door to a renewal of negotiations and destroy the prospect of a viable Palestinian state and the two-state solution itself,” Mladenov said.

Never mind that de facto annexation proceeds apace on the ground.

As the director of B’Tselem has pointed out, displeasure over Israel’s proposed formal annexation of West Bank land but not the current reality of annexation on the ground signals consent to the existing, unjust situation.

Objecting to existing injustices would require holding those responsible to account.

The cruel and illegal siege on Gaza is Israeli policy. Why is UNRWA afraid of saying so?




You ask why UNRWA refrains from attacking Israel outright??? Its mandate is not political but solely humanitarian. It cannot even offer the legal protection offered by UNHCR to refugees. Would it help if it went political? Certainly not. Israel makes its life hard enough already and could easily throw it out if given a pretext to say to UN member states, 'Look, UNRWA isn't humanitarian, its really political!' In such circumstances, UNRWA would be defenceless. Then it would no longer be able to provide education, health and welfare services to three million desperately needy people. Its strength lies in being apolitical. Anything that compromises that apolitical stance makes life hugely difficult for UNRWA to serve the refugee population. I worked with UNRWA in the 1970s. I learnt it firsthand. Even then, Israel's behaviour was outrageous then as it is now, but all of us in UNRWA knew it had to button its lip.

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

In my view, it’s not political or partisan to point out the basic facts of a situation. Indeed, it’s a political decision not to do this.


As long as the UNRWA served Israel's and the US' purpose of filling the role of basic provider to Palestinians- in lieu, it must be said, of a set of independent Palestinian institutions- the UNRWA was permitted to do so. The key point is this- that from the perspective of the Israelis, it was preferable to assign certain functions to a UN agency, absolving the occupier of basic legal obligations towards the captive population while inhibiting the growth of democratic alternatives. When the day came on which this expedient would no longer be necessary, the UNRWA would be condemned and dismissed precisely on the grounds you and your colleagues strove to avoid- as a malign political intruder devoted to Israel's destruction. And so it has come to pass.

The "apolitical" attitude publicly struck by the UNRWA was never a determining factor in Israel's initial decision to accept the agency's humanitarian role nor in the current rejection and defunding of those same activities. This was always and only a matter of convenience for successive Israeli and US administrations. Now that a new phase of operations has commenced, the UNRWA is, from an Israeli/US perspective, of no further value to them.

You may console yourself with the thought that you kept your mouth shut, but the truth is that your paymasters would have shown themselves entirely deaf to yours and your colleagues' voices.


Israel benefits from a consensus among global elites and their institutions that extends far beyond the intolerable but localized conditions of apartheid. The neoliberal economic model under which we all live produces as well as requires extreme inequality. Enforcement of this feature has become a principal goal of statecraft, and Israel straddles the gulf between democracy and authoritarianism in an exemplary manner.

While we continue to look to organizations like the International Criminal Court for a measure of justice, we have to keep in mind that the people who staff these institutions and the bylaws under which they operate are far more sympathetic to others in power than to the masses they've spent a lifetime ruling over in their own governments, financial institutions, and legal systems. International bodies exist largely to prevent rather than facilitate progressive change.

Israel represents an achievement in the eyes of global elites, a retrenchment of colonial methods after the long period of national liberation struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries. Israel's birth coincided with the post-WW2 rise of the national security state. As we have seen, such a state will behave belligerently on the international front and tyrannically within its own (flexible) borders. The combination of fierce racial unanimity among the Jewish population (fascism's alternative to democracy) with an unswerving commitment to subjugating/removing the natives and full absorption of conquered resources, displays a pleasing face to administrators elsewhere.

If this system is to continue, the world must become more like Israel. If, on the other hand, it is to be overthrown, we must look to ourselves and our collective efforts in solidarity with Palestine. That's the main focus of the struggle. To that end. pointing out the hollowness of UN, EU and other international agencies' statements deploring injustice remains an inescapable duty.


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Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

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Tom Hall is correct. UNRWA was established in January 1949 after the money from US charities which had pretty well kept 750,000 refugees alive during the harsh winter was exhausted. It shouldn't be forgotten that it was US entrepreneurs who came up with the idea. From the outset, therefore, the essential political aspect of the refugees' plight was ignored. The essential idea was that they could be resettled in Arab countries as part of what would be a kind of poor man's Marshall Plan for the Middle East. Behind this was the notion of improving the general standard of living in the region in order to head off Soviet influence. UNRWA was never able to fulfil its promises to the refugees. It was always principally a warm blanket around their shoulders temporarily. It wasn't able to transform their status nor to back their right of return. In short, being unable to take a political position undermined its capacity from the outset. It provides a convenient cover for Israeli policy. Why should they have any serious opposition to it? It's a welfare agency whose origins and history prevent it taking the necessary political stance. Israel is a full-blown capitalist economy and phoney democracy ensuring the enduring hegemony of the US in the region. As a racist regime it provides exactly the right profile for those international bodies whose purpose is to spavin radical change. Not only UNRWA but the institutions of the capitalist economies, including the UK Labour Party, fall into line and refuse to lay the blame where it ought to be. Israel is too important as a symbol for the unjust world order. It sends a simple message: what is being done to the Palestinians can be done to you. This abject moral cowardice is buttressed by the Orwellian doctrine of "The New Anti-Semitism" (neither new nor anti-Semitic) according to which everyone is an anti-Semite who criticises the Israeli State or Zionism. Only revolt by the common folk can change this.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.