The War on UNRWA Is Israel’s Awful, Absurd War in Microcosm

The US and more than a dozen other countries cut off aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, worsening the humanitarian crisis in Gaza based on charges US intelligence has “low confidence” in. It’s as cruel and absurd as this entire war.

A view of the destruction as a result of Israeli attacks at the headquarters of UNRWA in Gaza City, Gaza, on February 21, 2024. (Dawoud Abo Alkas / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Another day, another instance of Israeli government allegations used to justify a US-led push to escalate the mass slaughter in Gaza turning out to be as thin as many had first predicted.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US National Intelligence Council — a group of eighteen policy experts and analysts that evaluate pressing national security concerns for US intelligence agencies — only had “low confidence” in Israeli claims that about a dozen staffers at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) took part in the October 7 attacks. What that means, according to the paper, is that they believe the claims are “plausible” but can’t say anything more than that, because they haven’t independently verified them and their Israeli counterparts haven’t showed them the underlying evidence. Still, Washington found it “credible,” a nameless US official assured the paper.

There were, in fact, good reasons to be skeptical about the claims from the start, beyond the Israeli government’s propensity to push dubious nonsense and outright lies. We already knew from a leak that Israeli officials were planning these exact allegations months ago as part of an effort to push out UNRWA, an agency they’d long hated. They revealed these claims on the exact same day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made its ruling that Israel was plausibly carrying out a genocide. And a senior Israeli official admitted that “a lot of the intelligence is a result of interrogations of militants,” where abuse and torture of Palestinian detainees are rife.

But this Journal report is, in fact, only the most recent time we’ve heard how remarkably thin Israel’s charges against UNRWA are. A few days after Israel made the allegations — and when the United States and others had already paused the agency’s funding — Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted that “we haven’t had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves. But they are highly, highly credible,” before mentioning they were still to be “fully borne out.”

A week later, the UK’s Channel 4 got its hands on a six-page summary of the dossier Israel had used to make its accusations and reported that it “provides no evidence to support its explosive new claim,” reporting backed up by other outlets that had viewed the document.

Even though there was no evidence for the Israeli government’s charges; even though the UN immediately fired the accused workers and launched an investigation; and even though if it turned out to be true, it would mean only 0.09 percent of the thirteen thousand UNRWA employees in Gaza would have been guilty — the Biden administration immediately cut US funding for UNRWA.

The United States was the agency’s single largest donor, providing roughly a third of its funding; cutting support thus left the agency looking at a looming financial cliff. Since then, the allegations were used to justify a provision in Biden’s failed border deal that blocked further US aid to UNRWA, and a subsequent Republican bill to permanently defund the agency.

It wasn’t just the United States, though. The Israeli allegations, given legitimacy by the US government, were also the basis for eight other countries — all US allies or close partners — to suspend or put under “review” their UNRWA funding, too, representing roughly 60 percent of its total pledged donations. More countries followed their lead in the days after, taking the count to fifteen, while the European Commission announced it would decide whether or not to keep funding the agency past February based on the UN’s internal investigation, which is set to be done in March.

Though the Biden administration tried to play down the significance of the cutoff, arguing that all but $300,000 of its budgeted aid had already been sent to the agency, the decision has had an immediate effect on the agency’s funding. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, and a UN spokesperson have all said the agency would see a major budget crunch and would even have to start cutting back services as early as the end of February, with Lazzarini warning that its humanitarian operations in Gaza were “collapsing.”

In just the last few days, UNRWA has had to pause aid deliveries to northern Gaza, while the director of its operations in Lebanon has warned they “would come to a halt during March,” meaning the end of this week, due to the “severe impact” of recent budget cuts. One family medicine doctor who worked for an UNRWA clinic recently reported the agency had ended its contract with him for the end of this month “likely due to recent major funding cuts,” and that this “applies across the board to all people employed on a daily wage.”

What’s outrageous about this is not just the fact that long before this war, UNRWA effectively fulfilled the role of a basic, functioning municipal government in Gaza, providing core services like schooling, health care, sanitation, and food to its impoverished and malnourished population. It’s the fact that no other entity can do what UNRWA does in the territory, and these cuts have come at the exact time that, thanks to Israel’s actions, hunger and disease are exploding there — which is why numerous voices have condemned the cuts as “collective punishment,” and why one Gazan called them “a death sentence.”

Making all this especially perverse is that the cuts were started on the same day that the ICJ not only ruled Israel’s war is plausibly a genocide, but declared that Israel had to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid” in Gaza. Instead, the United States and a variety of friendly governments decided they would use the occasion to do the exact opposite, and in the process worsen the state of widespread deprivation there.

All the while, the Biden administration has continued to send military aid to Israel without any compunction, even though, far from having 0.09 percent of its representatives accused of taking part in a massacre, Israel’s entire state and military apparatus is undeniably involved in a far bigger and now-monthslong massacre, with many of its top officials making outwardly genocidal statements about their intentions.

The layers upon layers of perversity, absurdity, and hypocrisy to this story are hard to fathom. In other words, it’s the perfect microcosm of this entire war and US policy toward it.