States gutting UNRWA are complicit in genocide

A Palestinian youth carries a bag of UNRWA flour with two youths and an UNRWA school in background

The US has paused funding to UNRWA in the midst of a genocide.

Ismael Mohamad UPI

The US government had a prompt response on Friday to the International Court of Justice’s ruling that Israel is plausibly committing genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza.

The response was to defy the court’s rulings.

It took only a few hours for President Joe Biden’s administration to temporarily pause funding to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

The ICJ, a body of the United Nations also known as the World Court, had ordered that “Israel must take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Apart from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemning the court as “anti-Semitic,” Israel’s main response has been to change the subject. Based on allegations feared to be rooted in torture, Israel claimed that 12 UNRWA employees took part in the Palestinian military assault that began on 7 October.

In contrast to the Biden administration’s months-long refusal to stop the killing of Palestinians in Gaza, the administration’s quick response to Israel’s bid to change the subject was striking.

Under the previous president, Donald Trump, the US halted UNRWA funding in 2018. In 2021 the Biden administration resumed US economic assistance to the agency, but at least initially only at half the pre-Trump level.

Seeking to get ahead of the story, UNRWA director Philippe Lazzarini announced on Friday that he had fired several employees and was launching an investigation – apparently to confirm what he had already done.

“To protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay,” he said. “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

Lazzarini did not specify in which court such a prosecution would occur.

The implication seems to be that it could take place in Israel’s apartheid courts. These courts, that for decades have dispossessed Palestinians, administer a two-tier legal system, with a military “justice” system and a 99.7 percent conviction rate for Palestinians tried in military courts in the occupied West Bank.

Lazzarini’s attempt at preemption did not stop the US from pausing aid to Palestinians in the midst of a genocide.

At least 10 other countries quickly followed the US, including the United Kingdom and Germany. This group of historic and present-day offenders has now been dubbed the Axis of Genocide.
Francis Boyle, the first lawyer to successfully argue a genocide case at the ICJ, told MSNBC anchor Ayman Mohyeldin on Saturday that, by halting funds, these countries had made themselves active participants in the genocide.

“The cut-off of UNRWA funds with no due process of law, no investigation, nothing at all of that nature, for the governments that did this, they are now in violation of 2(c) of the Genocide Convention, ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,’” said Boyle.

Israel has long sought to disrupt and destroy UNRWA, the UN agency established in 1949 specifically to protect the Palestinian refugees expelled by Israel during the Nakba.

UNRWA provides essential health and educational services to Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Israel’s long-held intention to destroy UNRWA was revitalized late last year when Israel’s foreign ministry privately laid out plans to push the agency out of Gaza altogether.

Netanyahu said Wednesday that “the time has come for the international community and the UN itself to understand that UNRWA’s mission must be ended.”

He added, “UNRWA is perpetuating itself. It seeks to preserve the issue of Palestinian refugees.”

Netanyahu, of course, wants to wipe away once and for all the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes and properties they were forced out of in 1948.

The UNRWA crisis has now exploded into the news cycle at precisely the moment focus was briefly centered on the ICJ’s concern about Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Israel’s politicized charges have been critically examined by my colleague Maureen Murphy and The Intercept’s Ryan Grim.

Western media have rushed to focus on the UNRWA charges.

In the mainstream media, this has largely dislodged from heavy news attention the ICJ’s ruling that Israel is plausibly carrying out a genocide. Instead, there is breathless reporting on the UNRWA allegations.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins interviewed Dan Senor, former chief spokesperson for the US occupation authorities in Iraq, on the UNRWA developments. Senor proposed, effectively, that Palestinians be ethnically cleansed to Arab countries. There was no talk of their return to Gaza, let alone a return to land their families were expelled from in 1948.

In a statement posted Saturday on the Hamas Telegram channel, the organization asserted that Israel’s new campaign against the UN agency was “an episode in an organized attack launched by the occupying state against UNRWA, targeting its existence, drying up its funding sources, and liquidating it for political motives in order to liquidate the Palestinian cause and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”

There is almost zero talk in the US of where those refugees came from and the ongoing significance of Israelis living in Palestinian homes and on Palestinian properties for over 75 years. It’s the story that must not be told.

Destroying UNRWA

Israel is making clear it does not want UNRWA to be part of the effort to rebuild Gaza following the apartheid army’s scorched earth policies of the past few months.

Israeli officials – even if they prove unsuccessful in forcing a “voluntary” ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza – hope to permanently bury the right of Palestinian refugees to return home to 1948 lands and properties.

On Tuesday, witnesses testified before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability, chaired by Congressman Brian Mast. Earlier in Israel’s onslaught, Mast accused all Palestinians of being “Arab Nazis.”

Mast has cast doubt on the presence of “innocent Palestinian civilians,” initially standing by his statement before later trying to walk the claim back after facing political pressure for openly expressing anti-Palestinian racism.

Double standards

Israel has killed more than 150 UNRWA employees since 7 October. That onslaught did not lead the US or Israel’s European allies to stop providing Israel with support and military assistance.

But Israel’s dubiously timed allegations that 12 UNRWA employees were involved in armed activity quickly led at least 11 countries to suspend their UNRWA contributions.

Notably, there has been no hue and cry over the Israeli teachers and tech workers taking part in a genocidal Israeli military assault on Gaza.

UNRWA did not comment on a question from The Electronic Intifada as to whether Lazzarini had called for criminal prosecution of those Israeli soldiers and politicians involved in the killing of UNRWA personnel.

Nor did the agency comment on a question as to how many of the more than 10,000 Palestinian children killed by Israel’s assault had attended UNRWA schools.

Lazzarini has used the word “abhorrent” to describe the Palestinian military assault that began on 7 October. The agency did not comment on a question as to what terminology Lazzarini applies to Israel’s genocidal policies against Palestinians in Gaza.

Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, emailed The Electronic Intifada that “there’s a UN investigation taking place and as long as that’s happening I am not able to provide any more information on the allegations or the UN investigation.” No comment on which court Lazzarini had in mind for possible “criminal prosecution” of UNRWA employees – including, possibly, the two-tier Israeli legal system – was forthcoming.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, like Lazzarini, has called for possible “criminal prosecution” of UN employees. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson of the Secretary-General, said that “we have no further comment on that topic,” referring to the location of the court and whether criminal prosecution could take place in an Israeli court.

UNRWA is certainly in a delicate position, desperate as it is to keep donor support to avoid running out of money in February. That cut-off would come in the middle of the worst crisis to hit Gaza since the 1948 Nakba, when some 800,000 Palestinians fled Zionist militias for Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere in the region.

But cowering before supporters of Israel’s genocide has quickly shown itself to be a losing strategy.

One of the International Court of Justice’s orders was for humanitarian aid to be increased in Gaza, yet the US, Germany and the UK have responded by actually cutting off humanitarian aid.

Whether the ICJ will respond to this remains to be seen.

Nancy Pelosi

With the Biden administration imperiling humanitarian aid via UNRWA, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi targeted ceasefire demonstrators during a Sunday interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, perhaps the network’s leading anti-Palestinian anchor.

Upset about anti-genocide protesters outside her home, Pelosi sought to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“But for them to call for a ceasefire is Mr. Putin’s message,” she said. “Make no mistake, this is directly connected to what he would like to see. Same thing with Ukraine. It’s about Putin’s message. I think some of these protesters are spontaneous and organic and sincere. Some, I think, are connected to Russia. And I say that having looked at this for a long time now, as you know.”

This came as news to many.

Pelosi’s rant is pushing more Democrats toward the exits, a process already underway with Black pastors urging President Joe Biden toward a ceasefire.

In October, however, Pelosi claimed protesters should go back to China, apparently basing her comment on an August 2023 hit piece by The New York Times against CODEPINK. The organization, a “feminist grassroots organization working to end US warfare and imperialism,” pushed back against the newspaper’s attack by posting solidarity statements on its website.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, told The Electronic Intifada: “Pelosi’s accusation that protesters against Israel’s genocide are Russian assets who should be pursued by the FBI is grotesque and a slap in the face of the millions of Americans who, at great personal cost, have been trying to stop Israel’s slaughter.”

She added: “If anyone has taken funds to support a foreign government, it is not pro-Palestinian protesters, but officials like Nancy Pelosi who are in the pocket of Israel lobbyists.” Officials such as Pelosi, she asserted, “should be investigated, not those of us who want to stop the killing of innocent Palestinians.”

Democrats from Biden to Pelosi are ignoring the first rule of being in a hole: Stop digging.

The octogenarians in the party, however, seem incapable of reversing policies alienating key constituencies. Yet newer, younger House leaders such as Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries seem determined to cling to the same policies as their Democratic predecessors, infuriating the political base.

It’s a recipe for core constituencies to stay home in November.

Many Democratic politicians have effectively thrown in their lot with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by extension his ultra-right-wing coalition partners, who want to expel Palestinians from Gaza and rebuild illegal settlements there.

The complicity in genocide Francis Boyle pointed to runs deeper and deeper with each passing day.

Now three US Army soldiers have been killed in Jordan in a drone attack, reportedly by an Iran-supported militia, as the US faces a concerted regional backlash to its support for Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. CNN anchor Abby Phillip talked Monday night of the options Biden might be mulling to “avenge their deaths.”

The costs are rising for Biden, both in the region and at home. He was repeatedly warned about Israel’s genocidal actions yet chose to double down in support of Israel’s war crimes and its right-wing government.

For her efforts, his leading Democratic congressional critic, Rashida Tlaib, was censured by her colleagues, including some in her own party.

Notably, Biden on Tuesday morning said, “I do hold [Iran] responsible in the sense that they’re supplying the weapons to the people” who killed the three US soldiers in Jordan. But that’s distinctly not the approach he takes on the US government providing to Israel the weapons slaughtering Palestinians.

Biden co-owns this genocide with Netanyahu and has full responsibility for the American casualties – including the three Black soldiers killed in Jordan – resulting from his pursuit of empire and refusal to say no to the Israeli prime minister.


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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune,, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.