Gaza conflict: what is UNRWA and why is Israel calling for its abolition?
New Zealand has joined the growing number of countries including the US and UK that have suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), putting the future of the agency in doubt. The decision of at least 17 funders to withdraw support to UNRWA follows allegations by the Israeli government that 12 of the agency’s employees were involved in the October 7 attacks by Hamas in which 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 taken hostage.
While few further details about the allegations have been made public, UNRWA responded swiftly by immediately terminating the employment of nine of the accused staff members (of the other three, two are dead and one is missing). Even so, it is now facing the biggest crisis of its 74-year existence.
The impact of the funding cuts on Palestinians in Gaza will be immediate and catastrophic. UNRWA is the largest aid agency in Gaza; as things stand, 87% of people there are dependent on its services, which include food aid, shelter and medical care. Nearly 2 million displaced Palestinians in Gaza are currently seeking refuge either in or near UNRWA shelters.
With this in mind, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, has used uncharacteristically strong language to describe the suspension of funding as collective punishment. The blockaded territory’s 2.2 million residents were already facing imminent famine – now, according to the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, these cuts make that famine inevitable.
The UN has advised that unless funds are restored urgently, UNRWA will not be able to operate past February. Meanwhile, continuing Israeli bombardment and ground offensives since October have killed more than 26,000 and injured more than 65,000. The death toll includes at least 152 UNRWA staff.
With Gaza’s health services already virtually destroyed, dismantling UNRWA would remove one of the last providers of essential medical care in the territory. It would also leave half a million children in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank without an education, as UNRWA runs more than 700 schools across the region.
The Israeli allegations against UNRWA staff were made in the wake of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Palestinians in Gaza face a “real and imminent threat” of genocide. The ICJ ruling directed Israel to “enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Palestinians in Gaza. It also called on third parties to prevent any further deterioration of the humanitarian situation there. As such, the funding suspensions may violate the court’s orders.
The political context
This is not the first time that UNRWA has faced a financial crisis. Chronically underfunded for decades, in 2018 the agency faced a heightened threat to its work when the Trump administration withdrew all US financial support. Although the Biden administration partially restored this funding, the agency has remained in deficit and was making major service cuts even before October.
Yet the current crisis is of a different magnitude. It comes in a wholly different political climate of heightened hostility towards UNRWA from both Israel and the US in recent years.
While tensions have characterised Israel’s relationship with the agency since its 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli government’s recent shift to the far right has seen new demands that the agency be disbanded completely. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made such calls himself in 2017 and 2018, long before the current war.
These calls for the dissolution of UNRWA have increased during the latest conflict in Gaza – even before the allegations of staff involvement in the Hamas attacks were made. In late December, a report from Israel’s foreign ministry revealed the existence of a three-stage plan to eliminate UNRWA from the Gaza Strip.
On January 4, a debate in the Israeli Knesset heard arguments for the agency to be “destroyed”. The current crisis is best understood in the context of this bigger push to disband UNRWA and, by association, to close down conversations on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to the land from which they have been forced since 1948 – something recognised in UN resolution 194.
A move to UNHCR?
Israeli officials have suggested that UNRWA be replaced by UNHCR – the UN agency that supports other refugee populations. These calls have been justified through the false assertion that Palestinians are the only population whose refugee status is passed from one generation to the next, whereas UNHCR promotes refugees’ resettlement.
Although the transfer of Palestinians to UNHCR’s mandate would not negate their rights, the remits of the two agencies differ in important ways.
UNRWA provides services including basic health, food aid, shelter and education to millions of stateless Palestinian refugees. It is not, however, mandated to engage in political discussions regarding their future.
That role was given to the little known and now defunct United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine. By contrast, UNHCR provides far fewer services to refugees but is focused on finding durable solutions (voluntary return, resettlement or integration).
As it stands, UNHCR is neither legally empowered to serve Palestinian refugees, nor able to provide the life-saving and life-sustaining services that UNRWA performs. Long-term solutions for Palestinian refugees can only be achieved through good-faith political negotiations that take their rights enshrined in international law – which also established UNRWA’s mandate – as a starting point.