The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) plays a crucial role in providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in need. Established in 1949 following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA’s initial mandate was to offer relief to the 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees during the conflict, known as the Nakba. The agency operates in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, offering education, healthcare, social services, and distributing food and cash assistance to over 1.8 million Palestinians.
UNRWA’s significance became more apparent during the 2023 bombing of Gaza by Israel, where it served as the sole lifeline for many Palestinians. Over 1 million displaced Palestinians found shelter in UNRWA schools and facilities. The agency’s commitment to providing essential services has been evident, with over 150 of its employees losing their lives in the conflict.
The relationship between Israel and UNRWA, however, has been contentious for decades. Israel’s call for UNRWA to be defunded gained momentum after claims that 12 Hamas attackers on October 7th had ties to the organization. Despite prompt actions taken by UNRWA in response to these allegations, Israel, along with the United States, the UK, Germany, Finland, and others, supported defunding the agency.
To understand the animosity between Israel and UNRWA, it’s essential to explore the agency’s mandate and the historical context. UNRWA was created as a response to the unique situation of Palestinian refugees, distinct from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Israel wanted a separate agency for Palestinian refugees, given the historical context of the establishment of the International Refugee Organization during World War II, primarily focused on Jewish refugees.
Israel’s opposition to UNRWA stems from two key elements of its mandate. First, the right of return allows Palestinians displaced in 1948 and their descendants to theoretically return to their properties. Israel contends that this perpetuates the Palestinian refugee issue and poses a threat to its existence. Second, the demographic concern arises as each generation can register as a Palestinian refugee, potentially increasing the Palestinian population.
The tension escalated further with accusations of Hamas ties, leading Israel to push for UNRWA’s defunding. This move raises concerns, especially considering the agency’s critical role in providing essential aid to Palestinians. UNRWA’s funding, mostly reliant on voluntary contributions, has faced challenges, with the United States being a significant contributor. In 2018, funding was halted by the Trump administration, citing the institution as irredeemably flawed.
As of now, over 500,000 Palestinians in Gaza are at risk of mass starvation, emphasizing the urgency of replenishing UNRWA’s funding. The agency’s role has become even more crucial after the International Court of Justice’s provisional relief order, requiring Israel to ensure humanitarian assistance reaches the Palestinians.
It is essential to emphasize that Israel’s pressure extends beyond just UNRWA to encompass the entire United Nations system. The recent case brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel utilized data collected by the UN, underscoring the significance of the organization’s role in investigating and presenting evidence.
The ICJ’s decision to call for an end to genocidal acts by Israel against Palestine has faced staunch rejection from the Israeli government. This not only highlights the contentious relationship between Israel and the UNRWA but also signals a broader resistance from Israel toward international scrutiny and accountability for its actions in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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