UNRWA and the day after in Gaza

A man carries two UNRWA sacks of wheat flower on his shoulder as he walks through a blue door
UNRWA feeds millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, East Jerusalem and Syria (image: Abed Rahim Khatib/AA/picture alliance)

Defunding UNRWA will not only worsen the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but also have long-term implications for Palestinian self-governance

By Jonathan Adler

In its entire 74-year history, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has not faced a more difficult period than the past four months. Since 7 October, the agency has endured a sustained assault on its operations, staff and very existence in the Gaza Strip. 

There have been 170 recorded Israeli airstrikes on UNRWA facilities, including schools, training centres and shelters – where more than a million displaced Palestinians have sought temporary refuge, and where at least 396 people have been killed and 1,379 injured. Israeli ministers have prevented aid deliveries from reaching UNRWA, and Israel has repeatedly targeted the agency's aid convoys inside the strip. And despite their protection under international humanitarian law, over 150 of UNRWA's own employees in Gaza have been killed and 70 per cent of the 13,000 local staff have been displaced.

These physical attacks have been followed by defamatory ones, which may ultimately prove more lethal. On 26 January, the UN announced Israel's allegations that 12 UNRWA employees had taken part in Hamas' onslaught on 7 October. The agency immediately fired the nine employees who were still alive (in violation of the UN's own policies) and opened an internal investigation. 

These measures were not enough to prevent 16 countries – including the United States, UNRWA's largest donor –  from suspending existing or additional funding. Yet according to a Channel 4 investigation, the six-page dossier that Israel provided to major UNRWA donor countries about the allegations contained no evidence to support them. News outlets have reported that some states paused donations without even consulting the dossier, relying only on publicly available information. Nor did Israel provide UNRWA itself with any proof, as the agency's commissioner-general Phillipe Lazzarini confirmed.

'Deliberate attempt to undermine ICJ ruling' – Takkenberg

Notably, 26 January was also the day that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Israel's military conduct in Gaza to be plausibly genocidal. Former UNRWA administrator Lex Takkenberg suggested the timing of Israel's allegations was a "deliberate attempt to undermine the ruling," and punish UNRWA for its role in producing statements and reports that informed the ICJ's own findings. 

Israel has since claimed that 30 more UNRWA employees participated in the attacks on 7 October, and that the Israeli military found a network of tunnels running underneath the agency's Gaza headquarters; Lazzarini has responded to these latest accusations by noting that staff left the headquarters on 12 October, and that the agency has no capability to monitor underground activity.

In the short term, funding cuts to UNRWA will have a devastating humanitarian impact in Gaza. The UN appointed a former French foreign minister to lead an independent investigation into Israel's allegations; donor countries might resume aid after an interim report is released in March*. But by that time, it could be too late: UNRWA will likely be forced to suspend its operations by the end of February, not only in Gaza but across the Middle East. 

In Gaza, as Takkenberg noted, UNRWA is "indispensable" as the only agency in the strip with the infrastructure and personnel to aid an entire population on the brink of starvation. In this sense, as multiple analysts have pointed out, donor suspensions constitute collective punishment of millions of Palestinian refugees. Given the ICJ's order that Israel allow for the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance in Gaza – which can only be done in cooperation with UNRWA – donor countries may find themselves in violation of the Genocide Convention.

A crowd of people, including a young girl and a young boy, hold out empty pots and bowls through railings in the hope of getting food from a charity kitchen in Rafah, Gaza, February 2024
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is worsening; the UN has repeatedly warned of a looming famine, particularly in northern Gaza (image: Abed Rahim Khatib/AA/picture alliance)

Serious long-term consequences for Gaza's governance

Over the longer term, moreover, Israel's anti-UNRWA offensive may have serious consequences for Gaza's governance in the "day-after" scenario. With its education and vocational training programmes, health care and social service centres, infrastructure improvement schemes and emergency response capabilities, UNRWA runs what some have called a "quasi-government" throughout its areas of operation. 

In Gaza alone, the agency administered 183 schools before the war, serving nearly 300,000 Palestinian children, and UNRWA's local director was known as Gaza's "governor". Israel relies heavily on and maintains close coordination with UNRWA, since the agency provides governmental services in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) for which Israel itself, as the occupying power, would be otherwise responsible. In fact, it was during a routine monthly meeting between Lazzarini and a top Israeli diplomat that the accusations against UNRWA's employees first emerged, and every year, UNRWA shares with Israel a list of all its employees in the OPT. 

This is why some Israeli military leaders have been wary of their government's effort to defund and shutter UNRWA without a viable alternative. (Ironically, one senior Israel official recently insinuated that the agency has helped facilitate Israel's war, because without it, the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe would "force Israel to halt its fighting against Hamas.")

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell gestures as he speaks into a microphone in front of an EU flag
Earlier this month, the EU announced it would pay €50 million to UNRWA, but hold back €32 million while it deals with Israeli allegations of UNRWA staff involvement in the attacks on Israel on 7 October. "By continuing to fund it, the EU acknowledges UNRWA as an irreplaceable actor," said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (pictured here)

Palestinians have shaped UNRWA since 1949

But beyond providing services, UNRWA plays a politically significant role – as an international agency that Palestinians themselves have shaped and operated since its establishment in 1949. In UNRWA's early years, Palestinian refugees forced the agency to abandon resettlement schemes and redirect its funding towards education. As historian Anne Irfan argues, UNRWA schools emerged as key spaces for developing and transmitting Palestinian nationalism – while school curricula and UNRWA registration cards have served Palestinian refugees across the diaspora as symbols of their common experience.

More than 99 per cent of the agency's staff are local to its areas of operation, and most are Palestinian refugees. And, of course, UNRWA has long signified the international commitment to the Palestinian right of return as enshrined in UN Resolution 194. In Irfan's words, UNRWA should be understood as a "hybrid body, not a top-down institution," and one that has served as an outspoken representative of Palestinian refugees on the international stage. 

Because of UNRWA's political function – not only as a quasi-government but as a quasi-Palestinian one – the agency has found itself in the crosshairs of Israeli politicians, and well before the most recent allegations surfaced. The Israeli government has now accused UNRWA of being a "Hamas front organization", implying that it should be completely dismantled, despite the warnings of Israel's military leaders. 

Israel and the future of UNRWA in Gaza

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation of UN ambassadors that "UNRWA's mission has to end," while Foreign Minister Israel Katz made clear his intention that UNRWA will "not be part of the day after". In one sense, Netanyahu and Katz are right: any just day-after scenario – both to the current war and the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict – would see the creation of a Palestinian state and/or the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, resolutions which would bring UNRWA's mission to an end. But the Israeli government and Jewish Israeli public is perhaps further than ever before from accepting either of those conditions. 

What Netanyahu and Katz likely mean is that they believe UNRWA cannot continue to exist as a manifestation of Palestinian identity and self-governance. Nor do they see any need to find its replacement: as the Israeli military squeezes millions of Palestinians into Rafah, creating the conditions for "voluntary migration" out of Gaza, it is increasingly evident that Israel's day-after vision for Gaza is one in which not only UNRWA has left, but all Palestinians, too.

* Following an announcement by the European Union earlier this month, Sweden and Canada at the weekend announced that they too would be resuming funding for UNRWA.

Jonathan Adler

© Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2024

Jonathan Adler is the Assistant English Editor of Sada and a Hurford Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His writing has been published in New Lines Magazine, +972, and Middle East Eye, among others.