By Haydar Oruç
Established in 1949 to meet the shelter, food, health, and education needs of approximately 700 thousand Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA, is currently under intense debate due to unfair and baseless allegations made by Israel.
UNRWA is the United Nation’s largest and most effective aid organization in the region, established specifically for Palestinian refugees and currently providing for the needs and survival of 5.9 million Palestinians in 58 camps in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, with a staff of 30,000, including 13,000 in Gaza.
Israel’s hostility towards UNRWA is not new. It has long been argued that UNRWA has fulfilled its mission and should now be handed over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the other UN agency established to address the problems of refugees.
In fact, Trump, who provided unconditional support to Israel during his presidency, said that he would cut aid to UNRWA if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not resolved, and then suspended the annual aid of 350 million dollars. The aid stopped during the Trump era and was only resumed in 2020 after the election of Biden.
Israel’s hostility towards UNRWA is motivated by UNRWA’s definition of Palestinians in its area of responsibility as refugees, and the associated official recognition of the right of Palestinians to return to the lands from which they were forced to leave in 1948 (the right of return).
Likewise, Israel claims that the right of return is no longer possible because it has systematically settled Jewish occupiers (settlers) in the Palestinian territories it occupies. UNRWA is therefore seen as a major obstacle in Israel’s future projection.
As it will be recalled, Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century also states that the right of return is not possible and envisages a solution in which the Jewish occupiers who settled in these lands would remain where they are.
However, as long as UNRWA existed, this would not be possible and the right of return of Palestinians who were refugees even in their own homeland would remain.
Besides this, UNRWA was the most vital institution during the October 7 Hamas attack on the Aqsa Flood and the subsequent Israeli offensive on Gaza.
This is because UNRWA, on the one hand, provides food and shelter for around 1.5 million Gazans in its 8 camps in Gaza, and on the other hand, it has been subjected to Israeli attacks.
Since October 7, Israel has attacked UNRWA facilities in Gaza 141 times, killing 152 of its staff. This is the UN’s largest loss of life to date.
Despite all these attacks, UNRWA has not ended its presence in Gaza and has tried to ensure the survival of those in need by delivering the limited amount of aid that can enter Gaza.
UNRWA’s efforts caused great dissatisfaction in Israel, which began to see UNRWA as the biggest obstacle to its plan to completely destroy Gaza and make it uninhabitable and irreversible.
In addition, the fact that UNRWA’s reports, along with those of other United Nations agencies, were presented as evidence in the genocide case brought by the Republic of South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice has greatly increased the allergy to UNRWA in the Israeli administration.
Following the Court’s preliminary injunction announced on January 26, stating that there was concrete evidence that Israel had committed genocide in Gaza, ruling that Israel would be tried for genocide and demanding that Israel take the necessary measures to prevent irreparable damage, take the necessary actions against those responsible and report to the Court within one month, Israel launched a new discrediting operation against UNRWA.
On the same date as the ICJ’s injunction, The New York Times published a report that 12 UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attack, based on information from Israeli intelligence.
This was the beginning of the operation to discredit UNRWA, and from then on almost all Western media began to cover this issue. And without any concrete evidence. Even the Israeli media cited the US media and started to believe their own lies.
Following these false reports about UNRWA, UNRWA management launched an investigation and terminated the contracts of only 2-3 employees out of a total of 13,000, stating that they may have participated in the October 7 attack.
However, Western countries with different intentions have started to announce that they have suspended their aid to UNRWA, citing these false news reports.
Finally, The United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, France, Finland, Italy, France and Australia (the total contribution of these ten countries in 2022 was around 730 million dollars) have decided to stop funding UNRWA, which needs 1.3 billion dollars annually to continue its activities. It is highly significant that the countries that announced the cut in aid to UNRWA are also the same countries that support Israel, which is on trial for genocide at the ICJ.
In fact, the cut in aid to UNRWA is only the tip of the iceberg. Since it will not be possible for the agency to continue its aid activities for the Palestinians, the most important pillars of the Palestinians will disappear and even if the war in Gaza ends, the Gazans will not be able to return to their homes under the current conditions. In this way, there is a collective punishment of Gazans, even Palestinians, which is completely contrary to the ICJ’s decision.
There is also another dimension. The unfounded allegations against UNRWA and the ensuing controversy overshadowed the ICJ’s genocide verdict against Israel, and the discrediting of the UN agency, whose report was submitted to the court, rendered the ICJ’s verdict controversial.
According to Israel’s plan, when the ICJ ruled that Israel would be committed for genocide, it took into account the words of UN Secretary-General Guterres, as well as the reports submitted by UNRWA and OCHA, and now that the credibility of UNRWA, which played a role in this decision, is gone, it is possible to demand that the decision be changed or annulled.
As can be seen, Israel’s efforts to discredit UNRWA have not been in vain and have resulted in multiple benefits for Israel.
At the end of this process, not only will the agency’s existence be rendered moot, possibly leading to its imminent dissolution, but the Palestinians will be stripped of their greatest support, their hopes dashed and their resistance broken.
Moreover, the ICJ’s decision to prosecute Israel for genocide will be forgotten and countries that might want to intervene in this case will be deterred.
One of the most important points in this regard is that the 152 UNRWA employees who were massacred by Israel in its attacks on Gaza, despite the clear sanctions of international law, cannot be held to account. Because some of these employees were alleged to have participated in the October 7 attack, the impression was given that those who were killed might have participated in the attacks, and this massacre became coverable.
Despite all this, Western countries such as Spain, Ireland, and Norway continue to stand behind UNRWA and even increase their funding to ensure that UNRWA’s activities are not disrupted.
Muslim countries also have an important role to play here. Because it is obvious that Western countries use the funds they provide as a weapon in favor of Israel, and in order to prevent this, it seems essential for Muslim countries to increase their aid to UNRWA and to keep this agency, which is the only hope for the future of the Palestinians, alive without falling for Israel’s discrediting games.
This article was originally published in Diriliş Postası on February 6, 2024, in Turkish.