What’s behind Israel’s decision to target UNRWA?

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Kholood Mkhamer fled her neighbourhood weeks after Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7.

An employee of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Mkhamer moved from northern Gaza to the south, heeding Israel’s orders for more than one million people to make that journey. The UN feared that the order amounted to the forceful transfer of a population, which is a war crime, but Mkhamer just wanted to survive.

Shortly after relocating with her parents and siblings, they were killed. By that time, Mkhamer, a medical secretary, was working in a clinic along the border with Egypt when the house the family was staying in was shelled.

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“They were all martyred,” said Halima Loaz, a former colleague of Mkhamer’s and an UNRWA nurse who recently relocated to Spain. “Her, her mother and her brothers.”

Attacks on UNRWA

In recent days, a series of countries – including the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Estonia, Japan, Austria and Romania – have cut funding for UNRWA, the agency that Palestinians have relied on for everything from vaccinations to education for seven decades.

This came about after Israel alleged that a dozen of the agency’s employees were involved in the October 7 attacks on southern Israel, in which 1,139 people were killed and 240 abducted. UNRWA has fired nine of its employees preemptively as it investigates the allegations, which surfaced a day after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to restore vital provisions and scale up aid to the enclave as part of a series of measures to prevent genocide in Gaza.

“I don’t think it is coincidental that these allegations came out immediately after the ICJ ruling,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian legal expert in international law. “It is designed to deflect from the ICJ ruling and focus the attention on UNRWA and to undermine any attempts to hold Israel accountable or stop the genocide.”

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philip Lazzarini said the decision by major donors to cut funding for the agency would only further deepen the misery of the people of Gaza.

“Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing. … Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. This stains all of us,” he said in a statement.

It’s only the latest hit that UNRWA has taken since October 7.

Israel’s war on Gaza has killed 152 of UNRWA’s Palestinian employees, which is the highest number of UN casualties since the world body was founded in 1945. Some have been killed in Israel’s deliberate, repeated attacks on UNRWA hospitals and schools, which shelter more than 1 million displaced Palestinians in Gaza.

According to UNRWA, Israel has hit its facilities 263 times since the start of the war, resulting in 360 civilian deaths. The attacks on UNRWA staff and facilities are emblematic of Israel’s broader efforts to destroy the agency, analysts, Palestinian refugees and rights groups said.

The right to return

UNRWA was formed after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland during the creation of Israel in 1948, an event referred to in Arabic as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.

The agency collectively recognises Palestinians who were displaced to Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as refugees entitled to education, healthcare and other services until they can exercise their right to return to their land as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

But Israel opposes the return of nearly six million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA. Israel has instead lobbied Western states to eliminate UNRWA in an effort to sabotage the right of return for stateless Palestinian refugees, according to Shatha Abdulsamad, a legal and refugee expert with al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank.

“UNRWA is uniquely placed to highlight the need for a just solution for the plight of displaced Palestinians,” she told Al Jazeera. Its elimination, she added, “would facilitate and expedite the liquidation of the Palestinian cause because it could contribute to undermining the collective right of return”.

In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump cut all US funding to UNRWA, triggering international criticism. But President Joe Biden has seen allied states like Canada, Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom join him in pausing aid to the agency.

Israeli officials have championed the move with Foreign Minister Israel Katz tweeting: “We have been warning for years that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue.”

Omar Shakir, the Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said the Israeli government is not hiding its motives.

“It’s clear that there has been a years-long politicised effort to undermine UNRWA’s work. It happened during the Trump administration, and there are pro-Israeli groups that entirely focus on UNRWA because they seek to liquidate the question of Palestinian rights or even their basic status of refugees to serve a bigger political agenda,” he told Al Jazeera.

Campaign against UNRWA

Israel also wants to eliminate UNRWA to force Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to migrate elsewhere out of desperation, according to Zaid Amali, a UNRWA card holder and a civil society activist in the West Bank.

“This step of targeting UNRWA feeds into this overall goal of displacing more Palestinians [from their land] in order to build more illegal settlements,” he told Al Jazeera.

In December, Israeli media reported the government was conspiring to “push” UNRWA out of the Gaza Strip after the war, including by trying to tie the agency’s activities to Hamas.

On January 28, far-right ministers in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government confirmed their intention to uproot Palestinians from Gaza during a conference in Jerusalem. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has called on Palestinians in Gaza to “voluntarily” migrate and for Israel to re-establish illegal Jewish settlements in the enclave.

Even if Palestinians in Gaza want to flee Israel’s violence, which may legally constitute a genocide, according to the ICJ, most would be unable to cross into Egypt, which has made it clear it would not support any move that could lead to the potential, permanent displacement of the people of Gaza.

With Palestinians unwilling or unable to flee, hunger and disease could worsen in Gaza after the  funding cuts to UNRWA, according to analysts. A UN-backed report recently found that a quarter of Gaza’s population – or 577,000 people – are facing catastrophic levels of hunger.

Loaz said the global community is directly aiding Israel’s mass killing of Palestinians by suspending funds to UNRWA at such a critical time.

“They are going to let everyone [in Gaza] die,” she told Al Jazeera. “If people in Gaza don’t die from Israeli shelling and bombs, they’ll die from famine.”

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