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Defunding Unrwa is another step towards eliminating the Palestinians

The unfolding collapse of Unrwa follows the same pattern as Israel's destruction of hospitals and serves the same purpose: to debilitate another major lifeline for the population's survival
The Unrwa-run Sheikh Radwan Clinic in Gaza City is destroyed during Israel's ongoing bombardment of the Strip in a photo taken on 3 February (AFP)
The Unrwa-run Sheikh Radwan Clinic in Gaza City, destroyed during Israel's bombardment of the Strip, in a photo taken on 3 February 2024 (AFP)

Israel's disproportionate response to the alleged involvement of less than a dozen out of 12,000 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa) in Hamas's 7 October attack reveals the real motives behind its plan to defund the vital agency. 

The enthusiasm with which the Israeli public, the media, and the decision-makers discuss the dismantling of Unrwa is reminiscent of the atmosphere that surrounded Israel's assault on al-Shifa hospital, the destruction and seizure of which was considered by many to be an "image of victory".

Early in its war on Gaza, Israel sought to delegitimise hospitals and accused them of serving as "command and control centres" for Hamas and using them as human shields. Without evidence, Israel cast hospitals as legitimate targets and destroyed them across Gaza.

The unfounded attacks on Unrwa follow this same playbook, and its unfolding collapse serves the same purpose: to debilitate another major lifeline for the population's survival.

By destroying hospitals, relief organisations, rescue workers, and humanitarian agencies, Israel believes it can achieve its genocidal goal of wiping out Palestinians as a people.

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A premeditated attack

On Friday, 26 January, Israel made public its claims about Unrwa just a few hours after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered its ruling on the emergency measures requested by South Africa in its genocide case against Israel.

It was shocking to many that Israel published these allegations precisely on the day that the ICJ ordered Israel to "take immediate and effective measures to ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza". 

In response, Unrwa announced that it was investigating these allegations, which it stated were presented to it by Israel in early January. According to Israeli sources, these allegations were based on information gathered from interrogations by the Shin Bet and signal intelligence - none of which the news agencies had seen.

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Following Israel's claims and an intelligence report shared with governments, critical donors headed by the US, the UK, and Germany decided to suspend funding to the organisation.

Israel later claimed that 10 percent of Unrwa's 13,000 employees in Gaza were "affiliated with Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad", and that "50 percent are first-degree relatives of a Hamas operative". However, according to Sky News: "The Israeli intelligence documents make several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate Unrwa."

Other news outlets also reported that the intelligence document provides no evidence, raising serious questions regarding the government’s outrageous decision to cut funds to the agency.

The Israeli government had already declared its intent to target and eliminate Unrwa prior to its allegations

But the Israeli government had already declared its intent to target and eliminate Unrwa before its allegations. In a 29 December Times of Israel piece titled, "Israel hoping to push Unrwa out of Gaza post-war - report," the foreign ministry laid out its three-stage plan to push out Unrwa.

According to the document: "The first involves a comprehensive report on alleged Unrwa cooperation with Hamas; the next stage would see reduced Unrwa operations in the Palestinian enclave, amid a search for a different organisation to provide education and welfare services. In the third stage, according to the report, all of Unrwa's duties would be transferred to the body governing Gaza following the war."

Since 7 October, Israel has killed 152 Unrwa workers and damaged 147 Unrwa installations. Unrwa has provided vital and urgent humanitarian assistance to nearly two million people in Gaza through their various responses to the recent assault. It is considered the most significant aid agency in the Strip.

According to the organisation's data, nearly 1.4 million internally displaced people are sheltering in 155 Unrwa facilities. In addition, a total of 1.73 million internally displaced people are receiving assistance from Unrwa. This assistance includes food and health services through Unrwa's health centres and shelters, as well as water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

Unrwa's statements and remarks since the beginning of the Israeli assault on Gaza were notably powerful. They were quoted and shared by politicians and stakeholders worldwide, human rights organisations, and social media users. Their data and statements were deemed credible and, as such, were a reference quoted by various UN special rapporteurs and, ultimately, the ICJ in its interim ruling.

By virtue of its unique role as a UN body and the largest humanitarian organisation in Gaza, Unrwa has provided concrete assistance and produced reliable information. Unrwa has also been an active and significant player in local collective attempts to survive in the Gaza Strip and, both directly and indirectly, was a witness to Israel's crimes at the ICJ.

The decision to cut funding to the primary aid organisation amidst the deadliest assault on Gaza would inevitably debilitate these capacities, which align with Israel's genocidal intent as established by South Africa in its case.

'Unrwa is the Right of Return'

It is evident for those who follow the discourse in Israel on Unrwa that this move is politically motivated and rooted in an ideology that equates the Palestinian right of return to the destruction of Israel. For them, this war is an opportunity to dismantle Unrwa and, with it, the right of return, once and for all.

Israel has systematically accused Unrwa of being a shield for military operations, with its calls to dismantle and defund Unrwa dating back to before the current war. Israel has frequently made unfounded and often-debunked allegations claiming that Unrwa's civilian facilities and infrastructure are used for military purposes.

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Decision-makers, institutions, and scholars in Israel have long accused Unrwa of perpetuating what they call "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" by extending refugee status to millions of descendants of Palestinians, falsely depicting the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes as an obstacle to resolving the "conflict".

For years, they sought to undermine and limit Unrwa's role by claiming that the inherited refugee status provided by Unrwa and its education system is a primary threat. In recent years, several Israeli policy and research institutions, headed by the Kohelet Policy Forum, have invested in efforts to delegitimise Unrwa. This far-right influential Israeli think tank is known for the formulation of the ideological foundations for the Israeli government's radical judicial overhaul programme.

In 2016, the forum published a report titled, "Unrwa: Aid to refugees or terrorism aid?" laying out the political and legal measures to be considered to operate against the organisation. Moreover, the forum engaged in several discussions in the Knesset regarding Unrwa, focusing mainly on the refugee status and the right of return.

In its recent publication on 12 January, Noga Arbell wrote: "Unrwa, whose existence undermines Israel's justification for its existence through a unique refugee definition for Palestinians, is at the heart of toxic Palestinian education - its educational institutions train the next generations of terrorists."

The Jerusalem Centre For Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank specialising in public diplomacy and foreign policy, published a piece in 2017 in which they argued: "International aid to Unrwa, therefore, continues to feed the mechanism that educates generations of young Palestinians who inherit refugee status from their parents without a time limit on the values of the uncompromising struggle until the destruction of Israel. The economic oxygen also supports Unrwa's staff, many of whom are identified with Hamas."

Eliminating Unrwa is part of Israel's strategy to eliminate the Palestinians as a group and eradicate their right to return to the lands and homes from which they were expelled.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ghada Majadli is a researcher and Al-Shabaka policy analyst. She holds a master’s in human rights and transitional justice from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her work primarily focuses on Palestinian health and human rights, with particular attention to the multilayered system of control and management of Palestinians' health by the Israeli regime.
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