UNRWA | Quest for credibility

The Israeli government alleges that a few of the UN Relief and Works Agency’s staff were complicit in the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel

Updated - February 04, 2024 08:49 am IST

Published - February 04, 2024 01:52 am IST

Hours after the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled on January 26 that Israel must do everything in its capacity to prevent “genocidal acts” from happening in Gaza, news broke of the complicity of a few UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) staff members in the cross-border attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel on October 7.

The Benjamin Netanyahu-led government collated its charges into a dossier and presented it to the U.S. government on the same day as the ICJ ruling. The file stated that of the 12,000-strong UNRWA staff working in the Gaza Strip, 12 had direct involvement in the attacks that saw more than 1,100 Israelis killed and close to 250 taken hostage.

The aid group was also accused of harbouring 190 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters within its fold. The document says that during the attacks, seven crossed into Israel, one partook in a kidnapping, and another helped abduct the body of a dead soldier. Nine of them were teachers and one doubled up as a social worker.

Shocked by these allegations, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres promised criminal action against those involved, and the agency’s chief, Philippe Lazzarini, said nine were terminated from service, while two were dead. The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Matters — the organisation’s highest investigating authority — also opened an investigation into the matter.

As a fallout of these allegations, 13 countries, including the UNRWA’s largest donor, the U.S., have paused funding for the agency. In countermeasures, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Qatar have thrown their weight behind the aid group, asking the donors to reconsider their decision.

Right of return

The UNRWA is the only UN agency dedicated to helping refugees stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was established in 1949 to cater to refugees from the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, and began operations on May 1, 1950. That the agency exists to serve these refugees who still nurture hopes of the “right of return” irks Israel, as vast portions of their homeland lie in the country.

Israel has long accused the aid group of stoking anti-Semitism through its textbooks, possessing weapons in its compounds and allowing Hamas tunnels under its relief shelters. Attempts to discredit the agency bore partial fruit in 2018 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled funding to coerce the Palestinians to the negotiations table. Upon coming to power in 2020, President Joe Biden reversed the decision, saying the move was consistent with U.S. values and crucial to a two-state solution.

In its early days, the UNRWA catered to 0.75 million refugees. That figure grew over the years and now stands at more than 5.9 million Palestinians, spread across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

They include the 2.3 million residing in the Gaza Strip, who have been displaced from their homes and are now living in tents because of the Israeli ground offensive. The strikes have claimed the lives of 27,000 Palestinians — mostly women and children — and injured more than 65,000. The UNRWA itself has lost close to 150 workers, the highest death toll suffered by any UN agency in a single conflict.

For those remaining in the besieged Strip, the UNRWA is their primary conduit of aid, bringing in relief materials and coordinating the distribution work. Without funding, the agency says it will have to cease operations by the end of February. The subsequent impact will be limited not just to Gaza but will spread across the region. This will put additional strain on the governments there who will be forced to step in and supplant the aid work of the more than 30,000 UNRWA workers who cut across regions.

Also, a halt to funding will be in direct contravention to the ICJ ruling, which asked for direct humanitarian assistance to reach Gaza, Francesca Albanese, the Special Rapporteur for Palestinian territories, wrote on X.

Though the UNRWA began functioning with the objectives of direct relief and work programmes, it has grown in scope and now admittedly involves itself in education, healthcare, relief and social services, and even microfinance in Gaza. These are large shoes to fill.

The sentiment was best echoed when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who despite calling the Israeli intelligence ‘highly credible’, termed the UNRWA’s role ‘indispensable’. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also shared a similar view when she condemned the Israeli allegations but simultaneously called the aid group “the only organisation on the ground that has the capacity to provide the (required) assistance”.

Those advocating the UNRWA’s cause say the actions of a few bad individuals should not determine the fate of so many people. If Israel were to see the large picture, it would realise that having the UNRWA in place serves its interest. For international law mandates that an aggressor should provide basic services to the people inhabiting the land it has captured. In the UNRWA’s absence, the burden of the welfare of the Palestinians would fall on Israel, which is the last thing it wants.

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