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Op-Ed video: The west's role in Israel's bid to dismantle Unrwa

It's shocking how quickly 17 governments across the west suspended their payments to Unrwa without being presented with any evidence, says David Hearst

It's astonishing how quickly 17 governments across the western world suspended their payments to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, also known as Unrwa, without being presented with a shred of evidence, says David Hearst, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye.

Hours after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered its provisional rulings against Israel in South Africa’s genocide case, attention quickly shifted to defunding the one UN agency that is keeping Palestinians alive in Gaza.

In a dossier which was given to western nations, and later obtained by Middle East Eye, Israel claimed, without providing any evidence, that 12 of the agency's employees took part in the 7 October attack on southern Israel.

The UN agency was first told, through the media, that 12 of its staff were "members of Hamas". That number quickly rose to 190, before spiking to 1,200.

Unrwa regularly shares lists of its employees with Israel and with the governments of countries hosting Palestinian refugees.

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Surely if Israel had been gathering intelligence about Hamas penetration of a vital UN agency with so many employees in the occupied territories, it would have signalled these concerns in 2023 or any year before that, Hearst said.

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.

In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the responsibility of Palestinian refugees to fall under the UNHCR, claiming 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.

"It's moments like these that will go down as the seminal ones in western decay," said Hearst.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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