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Israel, Unrwa and the West: A history of claims and cuts

As a number of Israel's allies cut funding to the refugee body, MEE looks at its turbulent history with the international community
Palestinian refugees queue for food distributed by the Unrwa (UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian refugees) at a camp in Gaza 09 November 1956 (Rene Jarland/AFP)
Palestinian refugees queue for food distributed by the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian refugees at a camp in Gaza, 9 November 1956 (Rene Jarland/AFP)

Claims by Israel that 12 employees of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (Unrwa) took part in the 7 October attack on southern Israel have prompted a number of countries to pause funding to the agency.

The nine donors, namely the USUK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Australia, and Canada, cut off support for the agency on Saturday following the allegations, prompting warnings from the body that it will lose the ability to provide aid to the 2.2 million people that use its services after February.

It has long been a claim of Israel's that Unrwa - first established in 1949 to accomodate the Palestinian refugees forcibly displaced from their homes during the creation of the state - is effectively a hub for Palestinian militancy.

“We have been warning for years: Unrwa perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Saturday.

“Unrwa is not the solution – many of its employees are Hamas affiliates with murderous ideologies, aiding in terror activities and preserving its authority.”

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Such claims are heavily disputed by Unrwa and the UN more broadly, and with 13,000 staff in Gaza alone, the survival of the organisation could mean life or death for many of the enclave's inhabitants.

The campaign against Unrwa by Israel and its allies did not begin after 7 October, however, as Katz admitted.

Middle East Eye takes a look at some of the earlier attempts to undermine the refugee agency:

Why all the hostility?

With more than 30,000 staff members, Unrwa is the largest UN body, operating across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Although initially created as a temporary measure to aid the displaced Palestinian people, the decades-long failure to resolve the refugee crisis meant many of the camps serviced by Unrwa have developed into full-blown neighbourhoods with permanent facilities, religious and educational bodies and essential services.

Unrwa remains at the heart of these neighbourhoods, with 99 percent of its staff recruiting from the local population.

The existence of a separate specific body for Palestinian refugees apart from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has long been criticised by Israel, with officials arguing that it has helped prevent the integration of the refugees in other Arab countries.

Palestinian women demonstrate in September 1997 in front of Unrwa's offices in Jordan (Jamal Nasrallah/AFP)
Palestinian women demonstrate in September 1997 in front of Unrwa's offices in Jordan (Jamal Nasrallah/AFP)

In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for responsibility for Palestinian refugees to fall under the UNHCR, claiming that Unrwa "perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem" by giving refugee status to Palestinians with citizenship of other countries.

The move would see millions of the roughly 5.7 million Palestinians stripped of their refugee status, undermining the right of return - enshrined by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 - by Palestinian refugees and their descendants to the homes they were expelled from in 1948.

Despite the allegations of ties to Hamas in Gaza, the relationship between Unrwa and the Palestinian group has often been strained - although officials have repeatedly stressed that coordination between the two is necessary by virtue of practicality, Hamas has at times intervened in the education curriculum and shut down activities it sees as conflicting with its conservative agenda.

There have also been repeated accusations that Hamas requisitioned vehicles and facilities from Unrwa for its own purposes.

Trump's cuts

Unrwa has faced numerous financial crises since its inception.

Constant allegations about Unrwa's "infiltration" by Hamas have led to pressure from pro-Israel organisations for funds to be redirected away from the organisation.

In 2010, the government of Canada said it was redirecting money away from Unrwa "in accordance with Canadian values" over concerns that Hamas had too much power in the organisation, though these funds were restored in 2016.

In 2021, the EU also said it would be withholding some aid from Unrwa over the curriculum taught in its schools, which it claimed featured "incitement to violence" and hatred against Jews.

War on Gaza: Palestinian officials denounce US and UK decision to pause Unrwa funding
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“Hate speech, antisemitism and incitement to violence in Palestinian Authority and Unrwa textbooks have still not been removed," the European Parliament’s budget panel said in a statement after the amendment was approved.

"The EP decisions insisted that EU-funded salaries of education civil servants who draft Palestinian textbooks must be made conditional on material reflecting values of peace, tolerance, coexistence."

In 2018, in what was arguably the single most damaging act in the organisation's history, US President Donald Trump announced an end to funding for Unrwa, stripping hundreds of millions of dollars from the body.

During a conference call with American Jewish leaders, he claimed the move was inspired by the lack of willingness on the part of the Palestinian leadership to negotiate with Israel.

“What I will tell you is I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leaders,” he said.

“The United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money. And I say, ‘You’ll get money, but we’re not paying until you make a deal. If you don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.'”

The move was condemned by the subsequent administration of Joe Biden, who restored the funding.

Reduced to begging

In a press briefing in 2021, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the suspension of aid to Unrwa had "neither produced political progress, nor secured concessions from the Palestinian leadership" and had "only harmed innocent Palestinians".

Despite the restoration of some US funding, officials within Unrwa said the damage had already been done.

In a September 2023 report, released a month before current war broke out, the International Crisis Group warned a reduction of funding and "donor fatigue" had left the organisation's budget in "dire straits".

"Even if Unrwa is bailed out at the last moment, as has happened before and could indeed happen again in 2023, the perpetual state of crisis is untenable. It undermines staff morale, prompts salary strikes and reduces an international agency with a proud record of aiding Palestinian refugees to a miserable beggar for alms," said the report.

"It is also inefficient to run what amounts to a welfare state for three million people on a shoestring, as it militates against investing in infrastructure, digitisation and other updating of outlay, eroding the quality of services."

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