UNRWA pronounced guilty until proven innocent. Palestinians pay the price.

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James M Dorsey    30 January 2024

The timing of US and Israeli allegations that United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) staff participated in Hamas’ October 7 attack on the Jewish state was hardly coincidental.

The allegations, that have yet to be substantiated, and the halt in UNRWA funding by ten Western countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Australia, raise questions that go far beyond UNRWA’s potential culpability. The nine countries’ move freezes US$667 million pledged to UNRWA.

UNRWA workers pack the medical aid and prepare it for distribution to hospitals at a warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Gaza’s third largest employer, UNRWA is the leading UN aid agency in the Strip. UNRWA, the only UN arm focused exclusively on one group of refugees, has a staff of 13,000, including 3,000, who have reported to work during the Gaza war. More than 130 UNRWA staffers have been killed in the war.

The US and Israel’s allegations came barely 24 hours after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) warned that Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war risked acts of genocide.

Judges and parties sit during a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, January 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

The court ordered Israel to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

The Western funding freeze threatens to aggravate an already dire human apocalypse in Gaza. It violates the principles of due process that would give UNRWA an opportunity to defend itself and address legitimate complaints.

Due process would have also allowed the US and others to adopt positions less at odds with the court ruling and more independent of Israeli policy.

Not all Western countries followed the US lead. Norway and Ireland have opted for a more balanced approach.

“We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done, and what UNRWA stands for. The organisation’s tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, the West Bank and the region are playing a crucial role in distributing aid, saving lives, and safeguarding basic needs and rights,” said Norway’s representative to President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based, internationally recognised Palestine Authority.

“Don’t punish the children of Gaza. This is totally reckless. None of us can guarantee that staff are not doing something that is criminal. We have to punish the sinners and not collectively the population of Gaza,” added Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Photo: Sheena Ariyapala/DFID

With UNWRA’s future in doubt, the organisation’s former spokesman, Christopher Gunness, warned that wealthy Gulf states’ failure to step in would come to haunt them.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are seemingly hesitant to fund an organisation accused of links to Hamas. The two countries would like to see Hamas defeated because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and violence, even if they condemn Israel’s devastating military tactics.

Where is the Arab world?… This is a Middle Eastern problem. The Palestinian refugee problem is in the neighbourhood, in the backyard. These Arab states got billions and billions in oil money. Why can’t they step up to the plate and give UNWRA the funds it needs to deal with what is effectively a problem which is destabilizing their region… What these Arab donors need to realise is that their attitude towards UNWRA in this specific moment will have wider regional implications,” Mr. Gunness said.

Christopher Robert Paul Gunness, UNRWA’s former spokesman. Photo: United Nations / John Gillespie

Former UNWRA official Lex Takkenberg suggested that the organization may only feel the financial pinch several months down the road. He said UNRWA will likely have received “large advances” on pledged funds that will keep it afloat for some time.

“Hopefully, by that time an investigation will have demonstrated results,” Mr. Takkenberg said, adding that in past cases, Israel often failed to provide evidence, forcing UNRWA to close an investigation.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisor, Ophir Falk, asserted that there was “abundant evidence… It seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg… An in-depth investigation is underway.”

Mr. Falk said the evidence was on camera and based on information revealed by captured Hamas operatives.

The US-led response to the allegations bolsters a long-standing Israeli campaign against UNRWA that is as much an integral part of a broader policy to undermine Palestinians’ refugee status as it may be based on legitimate concerns.

Israel hopes to undermine Palestinians’ insistence on the right to self-determination and an independent state by depriving many of them of their refugee status that dates to Israel’s creation and the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars.

To be sure, UNWRA defines as refugees not only those Palestinians who fled the wars, but also their descendants, now in their fourth generation. In doing so, the agency has a vested interest in maintaining their status, which is not to diminish Palestinian rights.

“Israel has been building a case against UNRWA for a long time… Regardless of the veracity of the charge, the decision to go with this news…seems like an attempt to distract from the ICJ ruling on genocide in Gaza,” said International Crisis Group Israel analyst Mairav Zeinszon.

By not following due process, Western countries have fuelled an Israeli campaign that could add to the suffering in Gaza and complicate efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We have been warning for years: @UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza… UNRWA will not be a part of the day after,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, referring to the day hostilities end.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz .Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images

Critics take Mr. Katz’s assertion with a grain of salt.

Israel is not about to suspend its ties with UNRWA… Unless the Israel Defense Forces decides it wants to distribute the food, water and medical supplies to over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, it needs UNRWA to do it… It’s just a matter of time before those Western governments restore UNRWA’s funding… UNRWA will still be full of Hamas members, and it will still be needed nevertheless.” said prominent Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer.

UNRWA has not denied allegations that 12 staff members participated in the October 7 attack in which 1,100 people, mostly civilians, were killed.

In response to the allegations, UNRWA said it had fired the employees identified by the US and Israel. “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” UNRWA said.

The UN organisation noted that it “shares the list of all its staff with host countries every year, including Israel. The Agency never received any concerns on specific staff members.”

UNRWA has asked for an independent investigation, while 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 organisation has admitted.

UN Watch, a pro-Israel group focused on the United Nations, asserted that 3,000 UNRWA teachers were members of a Telegram chat group that “celebrated the October 7th Hamas massacre.”

UNRWA’s TERROGRAM, UN Watch Report on how a telegram group of 3,000 UNRWA teachers in Gaza celebrated the October 7th Hamas massacre. Photo: unwatch.org

It was unclear whether the chat group included only current staff or also past employees.

Before the war, UNRWA allocated 58 per cent of its budget to education. It operated 183 schools in Gaza attended by 286,000 students that follow curricula provided by the Palestine Authority supplemented by materials produced by the UN organisation’s staff.

Since the war, UNRWA schools have become shelters for Palestinians displaced by hostilities.

A November 2023 report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (Impact-SE), an Israeli group that engages in textbook analysis, asserted that materials in UNRWA schools were “openly anti-Semitic and continue to encourage violence, jihad, and martyrdom while peace is not taught as preferable or even possible. Extreme nationalism and Islamist ideologies proliferate throughout the curriculum, including in science and math textbooks.”

UNRWA Education: Textbooks and Terror, A November 2023 report by Impact-SE. Photo: impact-se.org

The report cited, among others, an exercise for 9th graders that celebrated a Palestinian firebombing attack on a Jewish bus as a “barbecue party” and a female fighter who in 1978 allegedly murdered Gail Rubin, the niece of US Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff, and hijacked a bus, killing 38 Israelis, including 13 children.

Responding to an earlier March 2023 report co-authored by Impact-Se and UN Watch, UNRWA said its staff “receive regular in-person training sessions and mandatory online courses on humanitarian principles, social media use, and ethics. In addition, UNRWA undertakes regular and meticulous reviews of all textbooks and learning materials.”

In response to a 2022 report, UNRWA asserted it had “in reviewing the material referenced in the report…, discovered the existence of a private, commercial website that illegally utilizes the Agency’s logo and the names of UNRWA educators. The Agency is seeking additional information on these sites for follow-up action, including possible legal referral.”

UNRWA noted that Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Educational Media or Georg Eckert Institute had concluded in a 2021 study that Impact-se reports were “marked by generalising and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings” that require “further investigation based on an overarching and comprehensive examination of the textbooks, contextualising the specific passages mentioned.”

In a letter to US Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer in November 2023, UNRWA’s Washington representative, William Deere, asserted that “UNRWA has a stringent staff conduct framework in place to ensure that staff members do not affiliate themselves, and by extension, UNRWA, with any other groups. All UNRWA staff, Palestine refugees, and contractors, vendors, and non-state donors are screened against the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List.”

UNRWA’s Washington representative, William Deere. Photo: wilsoncenter.org

To be sure, a majority of Gazan Hamas affiliates are unlikely to have been added to the sanctions list.

Even so, backing for Hamas among mostly Gazan UNRWA staff suggests broader popular support for Hamas that ebbs and flows, particularly in times of war.

Moreover, the anti-UNRWA campaign speaks to the achievability of Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas. It suggests that Hamas has a popular base that will ensure it is a Palestinian force to reckon with irrespective of when the guns in Gaza fall silent.

As a result, the solution is not penalising UNRWA at a time of Gazans’ greatest need. The immediate solution is due process leading to reform of the organisation and, ultimately, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the aspirations and security needs of Israelis and Palestinians.

For Israel, this is true strategically and tactically. Already on the defensive in an information war in which images of carnage speak louder than words, Israel would benefit more from being seen as complying with the international court’s emphasis on humanitarian aid and encouraging UNRWA to tackle its problematic issues.

“Israel can just go and say whatever it wants…but basically, if you are explaining, you are losing. Online, what speaks powerfully is images,” said Max Boot, a military historian and foreign policy analyst.

“We’re used to a reality where history is written by the victor. It’s not the case anymore,” conceded Masha Michelson, an Israeli military social media warrior.

Masha Michelson, Deputy Head of the IDF International Press Department – IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. Photo: linkedin.com / Masha Michelson

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.