Home » Articles » Suspending UNRWA funding is collective punishment for Palestinians- Ahmad Awad

Suspending UNRWA funding is collective punishment for Palestinians- Ahmad Awad

The decision by the United States and several other, mostly Western, donor countries to suspend financial assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) will have far-reaching and likely devastating consequences for the civilian populations that rely on its services, particularly in the Gaza Strip. The aid cuts came in response to allegations by Israel against 12 employees (out of 13,000) in Gaza. This suspension of aid to UNRWA will deprive the UN agency of approximately 80% of its financial needs.

Suspension of aid is not only unwarranted and morally objectionable but also reckless and dangerously destabilizing. As a former services officer for UNRWA in various refugee camps in Jordan, I have first-hand knowledge of how critical its work is and of the highly professional and disciplined manner in which it operates.

I grew up in an UNRWA-administered refugee camp, and after joining the agency, I was appointed as an officer of many camps in Jordan. I thus know firsthand how disciplined and professional UNRWA is; given its policies and management ethos, the organization is well-equipped to deal with any infractions or violations by staff members. UNRWA has 13,000 staffers in Gaza and many more in other locations in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The aid suspensions, which coincided with the International Court of Justice’s urgent call for increased aid to war-torn Gaza, will not only jeopardize the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians but also undermine the very essence of UNRWA’s mission and affect its services throughout the entire region. There are almost 6 million registered Palestinian refugees spread across multiple Middle Eastern countries; of those refugees, 1.7 million are in Gaza, where the population already faces some of the most dire humanitarian conditions in the world.

UNRWA provides educational, health, relief, and social services to Palestinian refugees who left or were expelled from their homes and livelihoods during Israel’s creation, in 1948, pending a political resolution to the refugee problem. The right of return of Palestinian refugees is enshrined in UN Resolution 194, which resolved that the ones “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” The following year, citing Resolution 194 (in particular, Article 11), the UN General Assembly established UNRWA, with strong backing from the world’s major powers. This unique agency’s mandate has been renewed regularly, most recently on Dec. 14, 2022, with the vast majority of UN member states voting to extend it until June 2026.

Regarding the allegations of Hamas operatives purportedly working for UNRWA, it is dangerous for donor countries to rely solely on a claim from the Israeli intelligence services, which was based on their interrogations of Palestinian detainees from Gaza. The danger lies in the fact that these detainee confessions, assuming they were in fact uttered in the first place, are most likely illegitimate. A long history of reported incidents of torture and forced extraction of confessions at Israeli detention centers means that the cited confessions or testimonies regarding UNRWA strain credibility and would be legally inadmissible under fair trial standards.

The unprecedentedly swift decision by Washington and other governments to suspend funding to this critically important UN agency, based on unproven allegations, and prior to the completion of the ongoing investigation or the confirmation of its results, constitutes a fatally flawed choice that will harm millions of Palestinian refugees, hundreds of thousands of them in Gaza. Indeed, those donors that have suspended aid have yet to receive any evidence from the Israelis.

Many previous Israeli governments had worked to abolish UNRWA, as its existence stands as international testimony to the ethnic cleansing that took place in Palestine in 1948 — what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe,” given the widescale, forcible loss of their homes and lands. This is what Israel wants to erase from the world’s memory. The US administration of Donald Trump responded to this Israeli objective by suspending UNRWA’s funding throughout his presidential term.

In addition to UNRWA, many UN organizations have been subjected to severe attacks by the Israeli authorities in recent months, including the World Health Organization (WHO), UN-Women, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), as well as many special rapporteurs on human rights. For years, Israel has banned UNESCO from visiting the Old City of Jerusalem; after Oct. 7, 2023, Israel canceled the visa of the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories.

As the Jordanian coalition of civil society organizations, Himam, warned, “[T]hese decisions represent a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of civilians who are suffering from famine and epidemics.”

We cannot ignore the “coincidence” that the revelation of these allegations came on the heels of the binding ruling by the International Court of Justice ordering the delivery of aid to civilians in Gaza. The effect of the donor countries’ decision on pausing their financial support of UNRWA will hinder the implementation of the court’s order. At the same time, these decisions and their consequences must be seen within the context of the sustained Zionist attacks on UNRWA and the Israeli side’s as yet unproven claims that the UN aid agency’s buildings are being used for military purposes.

The suspension of UNRWA funding by the US and others comes despite the fact that the Israeli army and air force have killed approximately 152 UNRWA workers, according to UN data. None of these same countries lifted a finger to hold Israel accountable, as the occupying state, for those killings or the destruction of UN sites.

At this crucial time, the funding suspension constitutes collective punishment of the Palestinians. Moreover, this measure is inseparable from the Israeli occupying state’s decades-long effort to abolish UNRWA, as the latter represents the essence of its occupation of Palestine and serves as a permanent reminder of it.

Donor countries must realize that the consequences of the collapse of UNRWA will hinder its humanitarian response to the Israeli war on Gaza, incurring a heavy cost in human lives, especially at this critical stage. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians depend on UNRWA to provide shelter and food, as this agency’s employees and its infrastructure in Gaza form the backbone of the delivery and distribution of aid that reaches the strip from many different parts of the world.

The international community must do its best to hold Israel to account for refusing to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and towns for more than 75 years. In the meantime, if the world cannot force Israel to adhere to UN Resolution 194, it should, at a minimum, allow a respected and professional agency to carry out its mandate with the resources needed in an exceedingly difficult and volatile area. UNRWA is more than just an agency that provides relief and social services to Palestinians in need; it also stands as an international address for the issue of the occupation of their land.

Without lifting the funding suspension, UNRWA operations will have to stop by the end of this month, which will exacerbate the already-dire humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Not only will relief operations decline, but so will the basic social services — most notably healthcare and education — that this agency provides to millions of Palestinian refugees in the camps in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. It will also undermine the role of the United Nations in finding a just solution to the essence and roots of the Palestinian issue as well as further encourage Israel to continue its occupation of Palestine, thus ensuring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues on for years or decades to come.

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