Defunding UNRWA Is Collective Punishment

Reeling from the ICJ’s genocide ruling, Israel attacked the credibility of UNRWA, the UN agency that provides food and health care to Palestinian refugees. Now Joe Biden and other Western leaders are cutting funding for the vital humanitarian aid agency.

Hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon demonstrate to condemn the suspension of UNRWA aid in front of a UNRWA building in Beirut, Lebanon, on January 30, 2024. (Houssam Shbaro / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Just one day after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to halt its killing of civilians in Gaza — ruling that the country may be violating the Genocide Convention — Western countries, led by the United States, halted funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, better known as UNRWA.

It was a stunningly punitive move, a brazen act of collective punishment amid widespread starvation in Gaza, where more than two million people depend on UNRWA for basic survival. UNRWA runs shelters for over one million people, providing food and primary health care to displaced Palestinians. About three thousand staffers, most of them Palestinian refugees, continue to operate in Gaza under relentless Israeli bombardment. (At least 156 UNRWA workers have been killed by Israel in the past three months, and Israel has also bombed countless UNRWA shelters and schools, slaying thousands of displaced civilians.)

The suspension of aid has stunned UN officials. “As the war continues, needs are deepening and famine looms,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said. “This stains all of us.” UN chief António Guterres appealed to the donor countries not to punish the “two million civilians in Gaza who depend on critical assistance from UNRWA,” while Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories, warned that defunding UNRWA “overtly defies” the ICJ order to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

The decision came after Israel accused several UNRWA staff of involvement in the Hamas attacks in southern Israel on October 7. Though Israel has previously accused UNRWA of aiding Hamas — in early January, a former Israeli official went so far as to call for the destruction of UNRWA, saying “it will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, and this destruction must begin immediately” — the timing of Israel’s charges suggest it is retribution for the ICJ’s ruling. The United States, Germany, and the EU are the largest individual donors to UNRWA, contributing over 60 percent of its overall funding.

The West’s latest capitulation to Israel underscores its continued complicity in Israel’s war crimes: US and EU governments are effectively starving Palestinian refugees in war-torn Gaza while lavishing billions in military and financial aid on Israel. Armed with Western weapons and support, Israel has so far killed over twenty-six thousand Palestinians in Gaza, including over thirteen thousand children. Hundreds of Palestinians have been slain by Israel since the ICJ ruling last week.

The tragic irony is that UNRWA was founded after the 1948 Nakba — the mass expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians that accompanied Israel’s founding — to relieve Israel of its obligations toward the refugees whom it had driven from their lands and homes. Gaza bore the brunt of the relocation, with 250,000 of those uprooted packing into the tiny strip. The rest settled in the West Bank and the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Eight refugee camps were created in Gaza in the wake of the Nakba. The crisis was so profound that on December 1, 1948, the United Nations set up a special agency to aid Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees, which later gave birth to UNRWA. Ten days later, on December 11, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 194, which called for reaching a final settlement to ensure Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their homes. (Israel ignored the resolution, but it has been reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly nearly every year since.)

Resolution 194 sent chills down the spine of Israeli leadership, which was still haunted by the specter of Palestinians flooding back. Therefore, when a year later UNRWA was founded by a UN General Assembly resolution to carry out direct relief and work programs for Palestinian refugees, Israel was among the leading countries to back the resolution, along with the United States and the Arab countries.

Israel was well aware that UNRWA wasn’t established to solve the refugee crisis, but Israel’s refugee crisis. While now and then Israeli leaders would publicly lash out at what they viewed as UNRWA’s anti-Israel bias, the agency was an international godsend to Israel, easing moral misgivings and financial obligations alike.

In that period, Israeli leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan conceded that Palestinian refugees had suffered great injustice at Israel’s hand, and were victims of war and violence whose grievances must be addressed if Israel wished to block their return. Israeli leaders also realized that the refugee camps scattered along Israel’s borders would be a heavy burden on the state’s future. As a result, and under mounting international pressure, Israel was ready to discuss the question of compensation and repatriation, to share with Arab countries and the international community in the financial onus for the refugees, and even to allow reunions of refugees with their families inside Israel. At the same time, Israel continued to encourage the integration of refugees into the host Arab states, which was at the core of UNRWA’s mission.

And so, with a strong international mandate and funding, UNRWA began operations in May 1950. The agency even operated within Israel until 1952, and it enjoyed Israel’s support long after that. In 1967, Israel asked UNRWA to continue its work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and routinely voiced its approval for its humanitarian mission in the Arab host countries. There was virtually no Israeli grumbling when, in 1996, UNRWA moved its headquarters from Vienna to Gaza, where a quarter of the Palestinian refugees were then living.

But now, as Israel levels Gaza with genocidal fury, UNRWA is apparently committing the sin of trying to keep Palestinian refugees alive. And instead of working to prevent Israel’s crimes in Gaza, Western governments, led by the Biden administration, have turned their wrath against the victims, targeting a people whose survival now depends on international charity. (UNRWA still accepts donations from individuals.)

If Israel truly wishes to wipe out UNRWA, the only alternative is to ensure Palestinian refugees’ return to their homes in Israel. In the words of historian Ilan Pappe, “The [194] resolution called for the unconditional return of the Palestinian refugees. UNRWA can only be dismantled if that resolution would be respected.”