Defunding UNRWA is worse than collective punishment

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On January 26, the very day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an interim ruling on South Africa’s case accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people, the Israeli government dropped a bomb. It was not the usual 900kg US-made bunker buster, but a much more lethal one: it accused 12 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) of having ties to Hamas or being involved in its October 7 operation. This immediately resulted in over a dozen countries cutting their financial support for the agency and UNRWA’s chief, Philippe Lazzarini, firing nine of the accused (of other three – one is dead and two are unaccounted for).

Given the meagre aid trickling into Gaza and the looming starvation of its people, particularly in northern Gaza, defunding UNRWA now is worse than collective punishment –  it could be a death sentence for many destitute and hungry Palestinians.

UNRWA was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1949 to provide relief to all Palestine refugees originally defined as “persons whose place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as the result of the 1948 war”. The definition was broadened to include persons displaced by the “1967 and subsequent hostilities”.

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Today, UNRWA has 30,000 staff, mainly Palestinian physicians, nurses, educators, relief workers, drivers, engineers, logisticians, etc who provide humanitarian relief, healthcare, education and other assistance to millions of Palestine refugees throughout the Middle East. In Gaza, UNRWA’s 13,000 staff have supported almost all aspects of Palestinian life, especially after Israel imposed a blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007 with Egypt’s support.

Critics have pointed out that the UN has delegated to UNRWA important international legal obligations that would otherwise be incumbent on Israel as the occupying power. Under the Geneva Conventions, basic services such as shelter, healthcare and education in occupied territories are the responsibility of the occupying state. Thus, in effect, the UN has subsidised, and possibly prolonged, Israel’s occupation of Palestinians.

From Israel’s perspective, UNRWA is another enemy that has prolonged Palestinian resistance to its occupation. It is a “barrier” to solving the Palestinian refugee question by simply resettling Palestinian refugees in other countries, as it is now openly advocates. For all Israeli governments, implementing UN Security Council resolutions and international law on the inalienable “right of return” of Palestinians forced by Zionist militias and subsequently the Israeli army to leave their homes in 1948 is anathema to Israel’s existence.

The accusations against the 12 UNRWA staff should be seen in this context; it is also important to remember who is making them. Israel is an occupying power facing allegations of genocide deemed plausible by the ICJ. Israeli forces have repeatedly attacked UN-protected facilities including schools and hospitals, killing thousands of civilians, mainly children and women seeking refuge on UNRWA premises, as well as 152 UNRWA staff. Israel also has a long history of unsubstantiated accusations against UNRWA employees and within the context of the current conflict, it has been caught lying repeatedly about alleged crimes by Palestinians (eg, the beheading of 40 babies on October 7).

Bolstered by the UN’s hasty decisions taken without establishing through an investigation a prima facie case, Israel now claims that 10 percent of Gaza-based staff have links to “militant groups”.

Under the UN’s internal rules, due process is compulsory when misconduct is alleged. When serious allegations backed by incontrovertible evidence against UN personnel are put forward, the UN’s secretary-general has the authority to order the summary dismissal of the accused staff. Such extreme cases are rare.

In all other cases, typically, a board of inquiry is established to investigate the most serious cases, or accusations are picked up by the UN’s internal investigatory department that may initiate a formal inquest based on preliminary evidence. In the interim, the staff member facing allegations of misconduct may be suspended.

In the case of the 12 UNRWA employees accused by Israel, summary dismissal is a surprising decision not least as the circumstances of the cases – an all-out war and possibly a genocide –  and the credibility of the accusing party should compel a cautionary approach.

Yet the UN leadership was quick to jettison the presumption of innocence of their staff. On January 28, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement to advise that of the “12 people implicated, nine were immediately identified and terminated by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini; one is confirmed dead, and the identity of the two others is being clarified. Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable”. In his statement, Guterres further states that “the abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences”.

Already, the secretary-general has seemingly adjudicated the case and promised “consequences”. He has shown no such outrage or made calls for accountability for the murder by the Israeli military of his own staff – as if such war crimes are not abhorrent acts that call for consequences.

Firing staff at will based solely, as Guterres admits, on “allegations” is troubling and should be of concern to all staff members and staff unions of the United Nations.

But more alarming and consequential is the swift decision of the United States, Austria, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania and the United Kingdom to suspend their funding to UNRWA during an all-out war on the people it was established to protect.

Worse, when Israel is in the dock of the ICJ facing plausible allegations of perpetrating a genocide, such decisions may even be deemed a breach by these states of their obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise since some of the same governments choose to overlook the many war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Israel and continue their military support for its onslaught on Gaza, now in its fourth month.

In the end, even if the 12 accused staff are found guilty of grave crimes, this hardly justifies starving UNRWA of funding when it tries to save from starvation Palestinians in Gaza. Cutting down a septuagenarian olive tree because it might have 12 “bad” olives on it is not only collective punishment – it is furthering a genocide.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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