Is UNRWA’s Treatment of Palestinians Fair in Light of Guilty Verdict?

The US and Israel have accused UNRWA staff of participating in Hamas’ attack on the Jewish state, raising questions beyond UNRWA’s potential culpability. The allegations have yet to be substantiated, and the halt in UNRWA funding by ten Western countries raises questions beyond UNRWA’s potential culpability. The nine countries freeze US$667 million pledged to UNRWA, which is the leading UN aid agency in the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA has a staff of 13,000, including 3,000 who have reported to work during the Gaza war. More than 130 UNRWA staff have been killed in the war. The allegations came just 24 hours after the International Court of Justice warned that Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war risked acts of genocide. The Western funding freeze threatens to aggravate the human apocalypse in Gaza and violates due process principles, allowing UNRWA to defend itself and address legitimate complaints.

UNRWA, a Palestinian refugee organization, is facing a financial crisis due to allegations of links to Hamas. The organization’s tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, the West Bank, and the region are crucial in distributing aid, saving lives, and safeguarding basic needs and rights. Norway’s representative to President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based, internationally recognized Palestine Authority, Jan Egeland, said that punishing the children of Gaza is reckless and that sinners should be punished, not the entire population of Gaza.

Former UNWRA spokesman Christopher Gunness warned that wealthy Gulf states’ failure to intervene could haunt them. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are hesitant to fund UNWRA, as they want to see Hamas defeated due to its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and violence. Gunness emphasized that the Palestinian refugee problem is a Middle Eastern problem and that Arab donors’ attitude towards UNWRA will have wider regional implications. Former UNWRA official Lex Takkenberg suggested that the organization may only feel the financial pinch several months down the road, with large advances on pledged funds keeping it afloat.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisor, Ophir Falk, has stated that there is “abundant evidence” that the allegations against UNRWA are just the tip of the iceberg. Falk claims that the evidence is on camera and based on information revealed by captured Hamas operatives. The US-led response to the allegations reinforces a long-standing Israeli campaign against UNRWA, which is part of a broader policy to undermine Palestinians’ refugee status. Israel aims to deprive Palestinians of their refugee status, dating back to Israel’s creation and the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars.

UNWRA defines refugees as both those who fled the wars and their descendants, now in their fourth generation. Israel’s analyst Mairav Zeinszon suggests that the recent decision to accuse UNRWA of genocide in Gaza may be an attempt to distract from the ICJ ruling. Western countries have fuelled an Israeli campaign that could add to the suffering in Gaza and complicate efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel is not suspending its ties with UNRWA, as it needs it to distribute food, water, and medical supplies to over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza. UNRWA has not denied allegations that 12 staff members participated in the October 7 attack, which killed 1,100 people, mostly civilians. The organization has fired the employees identified by the US and Israel and will hold any employee involved in acts of terror accountable, including through criminal prosecution. UNRWA has asked for an independent investigation, warning that Gazans depended on it for humanitarian aid.

The investigation could substantiate allegations that support for Hamas among UNRWA staff is broader than the organization has admitted. UN Watch claims 3,000 UNRWA teachers were involved in a Telegram group celebrating the Hamas massacre, despite UNRWA having allocated 58% of its budget to education before the war.

UNRWA schools have become shelters for Palestinians displaced by hostilities since the war. A November 2023 report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (Impact-SE) criticized UNRWA schools for being anti-Semitic and encouraging violence, jihad, and martyrdom. Extreme nationalism and Islamist ideologies were found in science and math textbooks.

The report cited an exercise celebrating a Palestinian firebombing attack on a Jewish bus as a “barbecue party” and a female fighter who allegedly murdered Gail Rubin, the niece of US Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff, and hijacked a bus, killing 38 Israelis, including 13 children. UNRWA staff receive regular training sessions and mandatory online courses on humanitarian principles, social media use, and ethics. In response to a 2022 report, UNRWA discovered a private, commercial website illegally using the Agency’s logo and educators’ names.

UNRWA, a Palestinian humanitarian organization, has been criticized for its reliance on the propaganda of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A 2021 study by Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Educational Media or the Georg Eckert Institute found that the reports were “marked by generalising and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings.” UNRWA’s Washington representative, William Deere, stated that the organization has a strict staff conduct framework to prevent affiliation with other groups.

However, the anti-UNRWA campaign suggests broader popular support for Hamas, particularly during times of war. The anti-UNRWA campaign also suggests that Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas is achievable, as Hamas has a popular base that will ensure it remains a Palestinian force. The immediate solution for UNRWA is due process leading to reform and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the aspirations and security needs of Israelis and Palestinians.

For Israel, this is strategic and tactical, as it would benefit from being seen as complying with the international court’s emphasis on humanitarian aid and encouraging UNRWA to tackle its problematic issues. Military historian and foreign policy analyst Max Boot argues that images speak more powerfully than words in the online world, and that history is written by the victor.

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