by Mohammad Shamandafar from Amman

“UNRWA is a terror organization under the aegis of the UN!”. A few words and a clear message came out last February 5th, from around 200 Israeli protesters who gathered outside the UNRWA offices in Jerusalem: the removal of the UN refugee agency for Palestinians. On the opposite front, a few hours earlier on the same day, the agency showed aerial footage of its health centres destroyed in the North of Gaza while denouncing the bombing of a food aid convoy, a few kilometres south, both caused by Israeli airstrikes.

These facts have in common is undoubtedly with the events from October 7th onwards. Following the Hamas attacks in the south of Israel and the consequent reaction to indiscriminately hitting Gaza ever since, also UNRWA facilities and personnel have not been spared. But what revamped harsh reactions against the humanitarian organization happened on January 26th, when the UNRWA General Commissioner Philippe Lazzarini received official information from the Israeli Government about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the October 7th attack. As the news went rapidly public, the US Government – the strongest ally of Israel and the biggest donor of UNRWA – put the agency under pressure. Accordingly, the UNRWA’s head took the unprecedented decision to terminate the contracts of these staff members and launched an investigation to establish the truth. That, however, did not prevent the damage already done.

Within just a few hours, the US formalized the suspensions of their contribution to the agency. In a matter of a couple of days, 12 other Western countries joined Washington, resulting in a loss of more than one-third of UNRWA’s 1,17 USD billion annual budget.

For a humanitarian organization serving 5,9 million Palestinian refugees with health, education, and other basic services across five areas (Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria), losing that amount of budget at once is a massive blow. “Starting from March we will be in a deficit of 40 USD million already”, shared Lazzarini to journalists in Bruxelles on February 12th. “But from April we may not be able to operate at all”, reminding us that 87% of Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on UNRWA services for food, education, shelter, and medical care.

UNRWA: a Blue State kept in the middle.

If the “human tragedy” ongoing in Gaza is unprecedented, what is not new are instead the political attacks on UNRWA. It may be enough to turn the clock back six years to see another massive fund cut by the US, led by former President Donald Trump, deciding that cut was an “irredeemably flawed operation”. But even if the vital US funds were restored by Joe Biden in 2021, that was just another symptom of the political controversies around a UN agency that since its foundation has always been trapped between conflicting interests and realities.

Out of the creation of the State of Israel and the correspondent Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians, resolution 302 of 1949 by the UN General Assembly gave birth to UNRWA. Its mandate focused since day one on the provision of relief, health, education and micro-credit services for the 750,000 Palestinian refugees, whose “right to return” had been already established by the UN Resolution 194 of 1948. As this right has never been implemented, UNRWA included also the Palestinians displaced by the 1967 war and other subsequent hostilities. Hence, the refugee status assigned to the original refugees has been transferred to their descendants, currently estimated today at over 5,9 million.  

UNRWA’s history, geography, and mode of operation have made it almost synonymous with the Palestine question. For a long time, UNRWA has been seen as the only possible temporary solution to which all parties, including Israel, could agree. Palestinians even used to refer to UNRWA as the Blue State. Schools, hospitals, tents, cars: everything with a blue flag became synonymous with the absent state structure but that in practice was played by the UN agency, whose services of a high-quality opened opportunities otherwise incompatible with a refugee status.

UNRWA’s golden age faced a turning point, however, in 1993 when, following the signing of the Oslo Accords, the international community began to progressively reduce the funds at its disposal. The agreement created the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which in the original view should have been gradually taking over the infrastructure, education, healthcare, and welfare provided by UNRWA. Continuing to finance two bodies thus became impossible. As a result, progressively many UNRWA services have closed their doors, and the empathy built with the population started to wane, giving way to protests, demonstrations and strikes by their Palestinian staff (99% of the total workforce).

Israel and the recurrent “Hamas” allegations

On the other front, critics of UNRWA from Israel have always existed despite the two entities are also strictly connected. But with the Oslo agreements, UNRWA started to pay the price of representing the “status quo”. In the Israeli view, this meant the “radical” conservation of the right to return.

With the emergence of Hamas and the victory of the Islamist party in the Gaza elections in 2006, the relations between UNRWA and Israel got only worse. As the UN agency started to legitimately criticize the total blockade by Tel Aviv on the Strip, Israel responded by building the narrative of “UNRWA supporting Hamas”. Although most of the accusations have proved untrue – like the story of the UNRWA ambulances “used by Hamas to transport Qassam’s rockets” –, in certain cases the public declarations of the agency’s officials have created controversies. Like the ones made by Peter Hansen, UNRWA General Commissioner from 1996 until 2005, stating publicly that there may be some Hamas members part of the UNRWA staff. Since then, after several other incidents, Israeli attempts to dismantle the agency occurred regularly.

This is why the latest allegations must be viewed in perspective. The fact that they went public on the same day as the ruling by the International Court of Justice on the genocide in Gaza may not be considered a coincidence. Perhaps, this situation could be a valid excuse for Israel to abdicate responsibility set by the ICJ’s provisional measures – to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza – because “it would be impossible to cooperate with organisations ‘infiltrated’ by ‘terrorists’”. Analyst Alexander Langlois added further that what is happening now is “in line with the long-running interest of Israel to nullify the issue of Palestinian refugees”. Ending UNRWA essentially means ceasing one of Israel’s existential threats: the right to return of Palestinians.

The analysis put aside, the decision to cut international funding is disastrous also considering UNRWA’s role in the broader region, whose consequences of the war are hitting already fragile contexts. Jordan, already burdened with a stagnant economy and suffering the consequences of war in its neighbourhood, will be put in a much more critical situation if the 2,4 million Palestinians under the UNRWA assistance have to be absorbed by the public system. Similarly, the situation would be as dire, if not worse, in Lebanon and Syria, heavily affected as well by the war on top of their internal long-standing political, economic, and social crisis.