Key UN Gaza aid agency UNRWA runs into diplomatic storm

UNRWA distributes flour to Palestinian families who fled their homes and took refuge in UNRWA schools as Israeli attacks continue in Rafah, Gaza - 21 November 2023

In Gaza, a strip of land fast becoming a wasteland, few international aid bodies can still operate. The United Nations is one of them.

Its Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, was founded in 1949, working in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, caring for the 700,000 Palestinians who were forced or fled from their homes with the creation of the state of Israel.

Now, says the agency’s head, the lifesaving assistance on which two million Gazans rely could be about to end, as several Western governments suspend their funding over allegations that some UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attacks on Israel.

The mission currently runs shelters for the displaced and distributes the only aid that Israel is allowing in – but it is much more than that. UNRWA provides key infrastructure and tools of daily life that Gaza has sorely lacked through its seemingly endless cycles of violence, siege and impoverishment.

It runs medical and educational facilities, including teacher training centres and almost 300 primary schools – as well as producing the textbooks that educate young Palestinians. In Gaza alone, it employs some 13,000 people. As the biggest UN agency operating in Gaza, it has been key to humanitarian efforts.

And it has also become something of a political football, kicked by various sides over the years. Its very existence is criticised by Israel as entrenching the status of Palestinians as refugees, encouraging their continued hopes of a right of return to land from which they were driven in 1948 or during successive wars.

The fate of refugees has been a core issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many Palestinians harbour a dream of returning to historic Palestine, parts of which are now in Israel. Israel rejects that claim and has often criticised the set-up of UNRWA for the way it allows refugee status to be inherited.

‘Hate and intolerance’

Moreover, Israeli governments have long denounced the agency’s teaching and textbooks for, in their view, perpetuating anti-Israel views.

In 2022, the Israeli watchdog IMPACT-se said UNRWA educational material taught students that Israel was attempting to “erase Palestinian identity, steal and falsify Palestinian heritage, and erase the cultural heritage of Jerusalem”, adding that the agency promoted “anti-Semitism, hate, intolerance and lack of neutrality”.

The European Commission identified what it called “anti-Semitic material” in the schoolbooks, “including even incitement to violence”. The European Parliament has called repeatedly for EU funding to the Palestinian Authority to be conditional on removing such content. UNRWA has previously said that reports made about its educational material were “inaccurate and misleading” and that many of the books in question were not used in its schools.

In 2018, the administration of Donald Trump, a staunch supporter of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ceased financial support altogether for UNRWA, calling the body “irredeemably flawed”.

Now, as several Western governments freeze their funding, the agency is again in potentially serious trouble – with significant implications for the 5.3 million Palestinian refugees registered with it. The US, one of the countries taking the decision, is its biggest donor, contributing some $340m (£268m) in 2022. Germany, which has also suspended financing, comes next, having sent $162m that year.

Israel has long accused branches of the UN of bias, antisemitism and worse. And now, a government facing increasing criticism at home and abroad over the war in Gaza has seized on this opportunity to bolster its argument – and somewhat shift the focus.

For Israel’s Western allies, this is also a chance to show understanding and support for Israel while at the same time keeping up the pressure on its government to rein in the offensive.

Despite pausing funds, White House National Security Adviser John Kirby was at pains to point out that the violations of a handful of staff “should not impugn the entire agency”, which, he added had “helped save literally thousands of lives in Gaza. They do important work”.

Israel’s foreign minister has labelled UNRWA “the civilian arm of Hamas” and said it should not have a role in post-conflict Gaza, which begs the question: if the United Nations won’t be allowed to pick up the pieces of a shattered territory, what will?

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