Skip to main content

Defunding Unrwa: The West is complicit in Israel's ethnic cleansing of Gaza

Israeli attacks against the UN agency are key to Tel Aviv's goal of ending the Palestinian right of return
Protesters gather outside the United Nations headquarters in response to the decision by the US to defund the Unrwa in New York City, on 31 January, 2024 (Reuters)

More than a dozen western countries, including the US, UK and Germany, have suspended funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, amid Israeli allegations that a handful of the agency’s employees were involved in the 7 October Hamas attacks.

Israel’s allegations came on the same day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its verdict on provisional measures requested by South Africa to prevent Israeli forces from committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

Western hypocrisy was evident in the differing responses of the US and its allies to these two events.

The ICJ ruled that Israel must prevent any genocidal acts against Palestinians, and enable the provision of urgently needed humanitarian aid across Gaza. But instead of urging Israel to comply, the US stated that the court’s ruling was consistent with its view that Israel has the right to defend itself. The UK told Al Jazeera it had “considerable concerns” about the ICJ case, “which is not helpful in the goal of achieving a sustainable ceasefire”.

While refraining for pressing Israel for a ceasefire, which would be the only way to respect the ICJ ruling, western states took immediate action to contradict the decision by sanctioning Unrwa. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


They took no action against Israel, whose war since 7 October has killed more than 150 Unrwa staff. The Israeli allegations, meanwhile, concern 12 out of 30,000 Unrwa employees.

This is further evidence of the hypocrisy and racism inherent in many western governments. Their decision to collectively punish 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, while failing to ask Israel to halt its bombardment after the killing of more than 27,000, highlights their view that Palestinian lives are not equal to Israeli lives.

Supporting genocide

For most Arab peoples, the racism of western officials and some mainstream media is nothing new. Still, the aggression on Gaza makes it glaringly obvious - especially for a new generation who are not limiting their narrative to mainstream media, but are watching Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and the occupied West Bank via social media.

The bad news for western powers is that their shameful support of the ongoing genocide in Gaza will shape how Arabs and Muslims look at them for decades to come.

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage of the Israel-Palestine war

Israel’s campaign against Unrwa is also nothing new. Israel has accused the agency many times in the past of supporting terrorism, teaching hate in its schools and helping Hamas, citing the discovery of a tunnel under one of its facilities. The Israeli army routinely attacks Unrwa schools and shelters during times of war. 

Israel has accelerated this aim by attacking Unrwa, hampering its ability to provide services, and making Gaza uninhabitable

At the heart of this campaign is Israel’s goal of ending the Palestinian right of return. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously described Unrwa as “an organisation that perpetuates the problem of Palestinian refugees [and] the narrative of the right of return, so to speak, with the aim of eliminating the state of Israel, and therefore Unrwa should be removed from the world”. 

Since 7 October, Israel has accelerated this aim by attacking Unrwa, hampering its ability to provide services, and making Gaza uninhabitable.

Palestinians have long warned that Israel is doing everything it can to achieve the “transfer”, referring to the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign since the Nakba. While Israel once denied such accusations, its officials now speak publicly about ethnic cleansing, using the new language of “voluntary migration”.

The suspension of Unrwa funding by the US and other western states could cost the agency more than half of its budget, putting lifesaving programs in peril, according to the agency’s chief. This move by western nations amounts to complicity with the Israeli regime in the starvation of Palestinians in Gaza, and in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land.

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

Feras Abu Helal is the Editor-in-Chief of Arabi 21 news website.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.