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UNRWA Aid Cuts: a Coordinated Political and Economic Attack

02 February 2024 | International Solidarity Movement | Gaza

An UNRWA school turned into a shelter for displaced Palestinians, January 2024. @UNRWA


Mere hours after the ICJ ruling which found Israel is  ‘plausibly’ committing genocide in Gaza and ordered it shall take “immediate and effective measures” to enable urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance into the besieged strip, the apartheid state started a timely orchestrated attack against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency For Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This resulted in 15 Western countries suspending funding to the agency at a crucial time.

Let’s be clear, this is not only a vindictive act after the ICJ ruling and an attempt to deflect the attention from the genocide that Israel is carrying out, but also a political attack to rid of an institution which enshrines the right of return of Palestine refugees and their fundamental existence, which Israel wants the world to forget. Founded after the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), UNRWA has granted “refugee” status to generations of Palestinians.

The aid cut from Western countries is another attack on the Palestinians and a continuation of the unhinged and unilateral support by Western allies for Israel’s genocidal plan and its will to eradicate the indigenous people of the land it stole. However, now with a legally binding ruling on the table, this action from Western governments could not only be in breach of the measures ordered by the UN court but also in violation of the Genocide convention.

As the largest aid organisation in Gaza, UNRWA is crucial to displaced Palestinians. It is now providing  shelter to over 1 million displaced people, in addition to food and primary healthcare. In the context of Gaza where, after almost 4 months of assault by the Israeli occupation which resulted in the killing of over 26,000 people and injuring of over 65,000, the ramifications of UNRWA losing funding are dire, as it is providing humanitarian aid to 2 million Palestinians, nearly the whole Gaza population. UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini emphasized the heinous nature of these actions, stating that “Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. This stains all of us.”
Around 15 countries announced funding cuts: led by the US (UNRWA’s biggest donor), Canada, Australia, UK, Germany, Italy, Netherlands,  Japan, and others followed suit. Meanwhile, France and the EU have announced they will review their funding to UNRWA in the coming period. Ireland, Norway, and Spain declared that they had no intention of suspending funding. Norway’s Foreign Affairs Minister Espen Barth Eide said that cutting funds amounts to collective punishment and Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, wrote on X that “famine is now inevitable”.

UNRWA employs around 33,000 staff, 13,000 in Gaza. UNRWA facilities in the strip have been repeatedly and deliberately hit by Israeli strikes, killing 372 displaced Palestinians sheltering there. 152 UN staff members were also killed during the attacks. The Agency has warned that humanitarian assistance will stop by the end of February if funds are not reinstated. 

This has been the latest attack on the Agency by the Israeli government, with Netanyahu now openly calling for the “termination” of its mission. During a discussion at the Israeli Parliament in early January 2024, Noga Arbell, a former Israeli foreign ministry official, called for the destruction of UNRWA stating:  “it will be impossible to win this war if we do not destroy UNRWA. And this destruction must begin immediately… UNRWA duties cannot be transferred, they must be cancelled.”

The Agency has not only a network of social services which, especially in Gaza, cannot be delivered by any other organisations, but has also a historic memory and a symbolic role in that it preserves the right of return of the Palestinians people. This is a right, however, which cannot be taken away from the children of the diaspora, with or without this institution. Dismantling UNRWA now will only serve to advance Israel’s strategy of starving and displacing once and for all Palestinians from their land. It is crucial to recognize that the the right of return of Palestinians is enshrined in international law and explicitly stated in UN General Assembly resolution 194: 

“refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

Therefore, any political and economic attacks to undermine UNRWA risk facilitating the execution of Israel’s plan, contrary to the internationally recognized rights of the Palestinian people.