Israel has confirmed that it aims to destroy UNRWA, the UN agency that provides basic health, education and other humanitarian services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
This comes days after the Trump administration suggested it planned to cut funding to the agency in retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s objections to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The US is UNRWA’s largest single donor and a funding cut off could have disastrous humanitarian consequences. In Gaza alone, one million Palestinians – half the population there – rely on UNRWA emergency rations, a number that has soared from just 80,000 in 2000 after years of Israeli siege and military assaults.
But for Israel, UNRWA is part of a problem to be eliminated: the existence of international institutions and agencies that support Palestinians and their rights.
UNRWA “needs to pass from the world”
Israel has long targeted the agency, politically and literally: during its assaults on Gaza, Israel has repeatedly bombed UNRWA schools and facilities, killing dozens.
“UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem. It also perpetuates the narrative of the right of return, as it were, in order to eliminate the State of Israel; therefore, UNRWA needs to pass from the world,” Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting.
The Israeli prime minister urged that UNRWA support funds be gradually shifted to UNHCR – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “This is how to rid the world of UNRWA and deal with genuine refugee problems, to the extent that such remain,” Netanyahu added, calling most Palestinian refugees “fictitious refugees.”
Netanyahu is toeing a well-trodden line of the Israeli far-right that Palestinian refugees only exist because a special UN agency – UNRWA – was created to care for them, and not because Israel denies their internationally recognized right to return home.
Israel refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to return home solely because they are not Jews and therefore views them as a “demographic threat” to its continued existence as a Jewish supremacist state that denies equal rights to all its residents.
Far-right anti-Palestinian media in Israel and the US quickly began echoing Netanyahu’s message, giving new life to a years-long smear campaign against UNRWA.
Mandate to return
Ironically, Netanyahu’s proposal to dissolve UNRWA and hand over the mandate for looking after Palestinian refugees to UNHCR could actually strengthen the right of return.
UNHCR has a specific mandate not just to protect refugees while they are refugees but to work to facilitate the exercise of their right to return to their home countries.
UNRWA, by contrast, has no mandate to repatriate Palestinian refugees to the homes from which Israel expelled them, but only to provide relief until a political “solution” is found.
“What perpetuates the refugee crisis is the failure of the parties to deal with the issue,” UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told The Electronic Intifada in reaction to Netanyahu’s comments. “This needs to be resolved by the parties to the conflict in the context of peace talks, based on UN resolutions and international law, and requires the active engagement by the international community.”
Until then, Gunness explained, “UNRWA is mandated by the General Assembly to continue with its services until a just and lasting solution is found for the Palestine refugees.”
Cut already made?
Last week, President Donald Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley threatened to cut US aid to the Palestinians, but it was unclear if this included UNRWA or just the Palestinian Authority.
A media report Friday claimed that the US had already withheld a $125 million payment to UNRWA due this month.
Gunness said UNRWA had seen the reports, but had “not been informed directly of a formal decision either way by the US administration.”
It would appear nonetheless that Israel is seeking to use the additional leeway given to it by the Trump administration to strike what it hopes will be decisive blows to end international support for the Palestinians.