Israel's attack on UNRWA designed to kill Palestinian statehood dream

Israel's accusations over the agency’s staff being involved on 7 October are part of a collective punishment campaign

Israel's attack on UNRWA designed to kill Palestinian statehood dream

Palestinians, already the victims of genocide and in need of a ceasefire to survive, have suffered a new racist blow: the decision of several countries to suspend funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Most of these countries are among the agency's top 20 donors. Their decision came because Israel accused UNRWA employees of being involved in the 7 October attacks and the organisation of harbouring them after Hamas’s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.

The withdrawal of funding amounts to more collective punishment for the Palestinians, alongside Israel's killing and starvation of civilians in Gaza. It also comes as part of the broader impact of the war, which has added to the economic pressure on countries in the region already in crisis and led to Iran’s disruption of global shipping in the Red Sea.

But this punishment of UNRWA by donor countries threatens the human security of the nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees who depend on it — inside Palestine and beyond. And it is underway before the results of any investigation into Israel’s allegations, however preliminary.

The timing of the accusations stands out. It came immediately after the International Court of Justice issued its ruling on formal accusations of genocide against Israel filed by the Republic of South Africa.

Read more: UN court hears South Africa genocide case against Israel

The court held Israel responsible for exposing the lives of the Palestinian people to systematic killing and urged "immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance."

Assassination attempt

It also called on Israel “to take action to prevent acts of genocide in the Gaza Strip.” And yet, the decision by key donor countries to pull funding from UNRWA amounts to an assassination attempt on an organisation that reminds the world of the Nakba, which led to the refugee crisis in the first place.

UNRWA's existence stands as a constant reminder that Israel ethnically cleansed Palestinians from their land and that these refugees have a right to return.

Israel took the chance to distract the world from the court ruling against it in the Hague. It also seized the opportunity to undermine the main international agency feeding and helping Palestinians with basic shelter throughout the onslaught on the Strip. 

The US has not yet expressed support for dismantling the agency. Those already in favour of eliminating UNWRA argue that the agency is not the only one providing services to Palestinians. They point to UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and UNHCR.

They seem to ignore the fact these organisations are involved in a range of refugee crises, from Syria and Sudan to Burundi, Myanmar, and many other troubled places around the world.

State services for a stateless people

Those keen on UNRWA's demise forget the vital role that it plays. It is, in effect, providing the essential services of a state to Palestinian refugees who were forced from their homes, land and livelihoods 75 years ago – when the state of Israel was created on top of their villages.

From education, healthcare, and social protection to relief and livelihood improvement, UNRWA runs the daily and continuous social services on which Palestinians depend. 

It also offers microfinance to aspiring Palestinian entrepreneurs aiming to improve their economic and social conditions, and it does so with over 28,000 Palestinian staff.

They are working alongside foreign staff to bring the refugees a minimum sense of humanity. Independent assessments of UNRWA show it effectively alleviates suffering, with a record that stands up to those of full nations.

Even fully developed Western nations are no strangers to mismanagement and policy failure as economic crises hit citizens all over the world, and their health and education sectors take a hit. 

Other UN agencies do not have the capacity to step in and take up UNRWA's work. They tend to operate only under specific remits with allocated funds and personnel. There is no capacity to handle a matter of such high regional and global importance as the Palestinian issue. 

UNRWA stands out from other international humanitarian orgnisations in that it provides state services to stateless Palestinian refugees.

A critical lifeline

This reality has raised alarm at the highest level. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says without UNRWA, the suffering of Palestinians and refugees in neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan – will worsen.

If the agency is weakened, the burden these host countries face will become more onerous, stoking resentment toward refugees.

This is particularly true in Lebanon, where grudges and memories of wars and conflicts remain raw. There are still large numbers of Lebanese who reject the integration of Palestinians into their society due to various political, religious, sectarian, and demographic factors.

All the host nations are grappling with their own severe economic crises, already struggling for sustainable funding to accommodate the sudden population increases that have become permanent.

Like nation-states, UNRWA runs on an annual budget. While not entirely fixed, according to 2022 figures, it did not exceed $1.2bn, or around 7% of Palestine's gross domestic product in 2021. 

That level of spending was not enough to prevent the problems faced by Palestinian refugees. They continue to face poverty and low levels of healthcare and education. The infrastructure is also poor, with cramped living conditions.

Standards of construction in dozens of refugee camps across three countries are haphazard, as well as within the Palestinian territories themselves. 

Applying the metrics used by nation-states to UNRWA is revealing. An equivalent to the size of an economy per person, gross domestic product per capita, can be found by working out the share of the agency's budget for each Palestinian.

That works out at under $200 per year. And this value goes to refugees in the form of services, particularly in education and healthcare, with a small portion allocated for emergency projects.

Most of the money, around 80%, is spent on salaries. But the wages it offers are small and do not allow for a decent standard of living. Even that is at risk if UNRWA's funding is pulled by its international donors. And it could even run out of money by the end of the month. 

If UNWRA is weakened, the burden host countries will face becomes more onerous, stoking resentment toward refugees.

Even with the funding, there are already high levels of suffering in the refugee camps, and the terrible conditions are obvious to anyone who visits them, across a maze of cramped dwellings, tangled cables, unsanitary sewage networks and a lack of proper hygiene in most cases. 

Since 2021, UNRWA has been striving to modernise its operations and working methods by adopting digital transformation to improve service quality and reduce corruption, like all countries and humanitarian organisations around the world.

While the agency is vital to Palestinians, it falls short of meeting the real day-to-day needs of the people. That is because funding was already lacking, even before donors pulled out after Israel's accusations. 

Not long after they were made, the European Union allocated $50bn in funding to Ukraine. The contrast between this staggering amount and what is offered elsewhere is clear. 

Reminder of right of return

Israel's efforts to eliminate UNRWA are not new. It wants to erase the Nakba from memory, and UNRWA's existence stands as a constant reminder that Israel ethnically cleansed Palestinians from their land and that these refugees have a right to return.

UNRWA has helped foster Palestinian resilience. It came into existence because of the Nakba, which makes it a constant reminder of generational Palestinian suffering.

This is why Israel has targeted UNRWA facilities. Its complete disregard for international conventions reveals its sinister intentions. 

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