by Mohammad Shamandafar (from Amman)

“We have two messages: first, our commitment to staying here and our unwavering belief in the right of return. And second, a call to halt the brutal war on Gaza.” Mussa Saghir, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, made clear what does May 15th still means after 76 years. A member of the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Displaced Persons, Mussa attended a symbolical march of return in Shefa Amr (Shafar’am in Arabic), located northeast of the coastal city Haifa. Thousands were with him, for an event that every year for Israel means the Independence Day, and instead for Palestinians represents the Nakba, or the catastrophe occurred in 1948 when Zionist militias expelled over 750,000 people from their villages. This year, however, is different than the other ones, as the ongoing war in Gaza has displaced over 1,9 millions of Palestinians, in addition to killing over 34,000.

In a totally different spirit, the day before at the Tarqumiya checkpoint near Hebron, a group of Israeli settlers decided to commemorate the anniversary of the Israeli independence by assaulting an aid convoy. Coming from Jordan and destined to the displaced population in Gaza, the trucks contained vital items like flour, rice, sugar, and other items, which were all set on fire after being thrown on the street. While this has been considered outrageous internationally, there is actually very little to be surprised if one gets a closer look at the way humanitarian aid towards Palestinians has been perceived in Israel throughout history. At this regard, looking at the UNRWA is an emblematic starting point.

As the information shared by the Israeli intelligence about the involvement of UNRWA staff in the 7 October attack by Hamas drew an overwhelming attention internationally, the results of the independent investigation set thereafter did not find the same space on the media. Led by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, the independent review concluded last April that “Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of its claims.” While drawing some recommendations on how to improve UNRWA’s neutrality, the report highlighted the agency’s “pivotal role in providing lifesaving humanitarian aid and essential social services in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank – in light of the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians.” As such, the review made clear that “Unrwa is irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development.”

Probes within UNRWA are not over, though, since the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services is investigating 19 staff members alleged to have partaken the Hamas attach on 7 October. Of those, which UNRWA has denounced their confession occurring as a result of violent methods by the Israeli security forces, 5 of them were exonerated due to absence of evidence. At least the Colonna report had the positive effect of resuming some funds for the aid agency. Most of those, particularly from its major donor – US, whose Congress however passed a law blocking financial support to UNRWA until next year – were suspended immediately after the Israeli claim in February. In light of the results of the investigations, it is even clearer today that such decisions were motivated by politics – even in an odd way, in the case of Italy – more than by a real will to understand the facts. And if one side UNRWA can financially “breath” with the resumed funds, so that in such a delicate phase of the war in Gaza with Israel attacking Rafah can provide vital assistance to the Palestinians, the verbal and physical assaults on the agency are far from being over.

Few days before the assault at the Tarqumya checkpoint, as well on the very same day, the UNRWA offices in East Jerusalem suffered three arsons attacks by a group of Israeli settlers, forcing all the staff members to evacuate to Jordan. But as these attacks received the strongest condemnation by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, nothing has been publicly said by the Israeli government, whose various members in the past weeks and months have maintained their rhetoric against the agency – whose historical roots deal with a much bigger Israeli fear: the right of return for Palestinians.

“You cannot expect the country to fight its enemy and feed it at the same time”. Back on February 27th Rachel Touitou of Tzav 9, an Israeli movement formed in December explicitly to prevent aid to reach Gaza, explained their role to The New Arab. Tzav 9, which refers to the alert code sent to Israeli army reservists when a draft is initiated, is the same movement behind the setting on fire of UNRWA offices and the aid truck in the past days. Along with Im Tirtzu, a declared Zionist organization, considered one of the most influential movement in the Israeli politics in the past 20 years, the two groups have been continuously made sabotage actions at the points where aid trucks were on their way to Gaza – mostly around Rafah or, like recently, targeting convoys coming from Jordan – as well as protesting against UNRWA. While protesters are based on different demographic – from religious to secular, young families, elderly couples, and even teenagers – their ideology appears the same. And it is the ideology that elected politicians are promoting at different levels.

Take for example the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Arieh King, who has been campaigning against the expulsion of UNRWA from Israel just until before the arson attacks. From open call through social media, to his presence in sit-ins and explicit fundraising support for Tzav 9 and Im Tirtzu, King has even tried to claim that UNRWA’s presence in East Jerusalem is illegal by law. But by knowing that he belongs to the same party – Jewish Power – of National Security Minister Ben Gvir, who since the beginning of the war on Gaza was appealing for a total destruction of the Strip (in his words, “only hundred of tons of explosives, not humanitarian aid, shall enter Gaza”), one can understand how widespread the far-right political culture is in Israeli politics. As if this was not enough, it is important to remind other “famous quotes” by Israeli officials in the past months, like the Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, one of the most active in making a genocidal rhetoric the normality, stating last November that Israel “is fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

“There’s a sense that this kind of behaviour has been encouraged, and encouraged again and again, by inflammatory rhetoric,” said Jonhatan Flower, Senior Communication Advisor at UNRWA after the fire occurred at his office in East Jerusalem. “So, we go from inflammatory rhetoric to real flames in the space of a few days.” However, looking at established behaviours such as the inaction by the police at the latest incidents, which is the same experienced in the West Bank during the daily attacks by settlers against Palestinians, as well as the support to the opposition of transferring aid to Gaza by the general public (68%, according to a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll), the matter seems a much bigger problem.

A problem that deals with the fact that the Israeli society has become more right-wing, more militant, and more addicted to the level of control that they have over Palestinians’ daily life. Such dynamics create this unprecedented moment when people are protesting against humanitarian aid, which may appear absurd to an outside perspective. But for the Israeli public, that seems more the normality.

On the cover photo, Palestinian refugees gather with national flags outside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza City ©Anas-Mohammed/