Why Israel’s war on UNRWA is so sinister

William Van Wagenen, Orinoco Tribune, February 15, 2024 —

Tel Aviv’s goal of dismantling the UN agency in the name of security is a strategic move aimed not only at depriving Palestinian refugees of lifesaving assistance, but completely eradicating the notion that they will one day return to the lands they were expelled from.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is facing the gravest existential crisis in its 74-year history, as funding cuts by several western countries come on top of ongoing atrocities perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.

The UN agency is unique in being the only one dedicated to a specific group of refugees in specific areas, and the only relief organization that operates a full-fledged educational system. UNRWA is also the only organization mandated to work in Gaza and distribute aid to the two million people currently trapped and starved in the besieged enclave.

To compound these challenges, the occupation wants to see it dismantled.

UNRWA must be destroyed

In January, Israel alleged that Palestinian members of UNRWA’s staff participated in the resistance’s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October, leading the US and 18 other nations to swiftly suspend funding for the organization. 

The suspensions were met with shock, as UNRWA plays a key role in providing food and medicine to starving Gazans struggling to survive Israel’s siege and bombardment of the coastal enclave.

However, Israel’s allegations are not based on any evidence. They are instead part of a classified plan prepared in advance by Israel’s foreign ministry to destroy UNRWA. It believes that UNRWA “works against Israel’s interests” by perpetuating the dream of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the idea of armed struggle against occupation.

The foreign ministry plan leaked to Israel’s Channel 12 on 28 December, set out a three-stage process to eliminate UNRWA in Gaza, using the Hamas-led resistance operation as a pretext:

First, prepare a case alleging UNRWA’s cooperation with Hamas; second, reduce UNRWA’s field of activity and find replacement service providers; and third, transfer UNRWA’s responsibilities to another entity.

Channel 12 noted that Israel wants to move slowly, given that the US government sees UNRWA as crucial to humanitarian efforts in Gaza. The foreign ministry is seeking to gradually build the case for ousting the organization as part of the discussions on “the day after” the war – should Hamas be dismantled.

A sequence of events

According to a report by The New York Times, the “sequence of events” that led the US to suspend UNRWA funding began on 18 January when Amir Weissbrod, a deputy director general at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, met with Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA in Tel Aviv. 

Weissbrod showed Lazzarini a dossier from Israeli intelligence claiming that 12 UNRWA employees had participated in the 7 October attacks. 

After the meeting in Israel, Lazzarini made no effort to confirm the validity of the claims. Instead, he flew to New York to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and immediately began firing the employees, a UN official said.

The Guardian reported that Lazzarini was later asked in a press conference if he had looked into whether there was any evidence for the allegations presented to him by Weissbrod. 

“No,” Lazzarini replied, “the investigation is going on now.”

Lazzarini said he made the “exceptional, swift decision” due to “the explosive nature of the claims,” rather than any evidence. 

Lazzarini said he did not even read the dossier himself because it was in Hebrew. Instead, Weissbrod “was reading this and translating for me,” he said.

How did the US know?

The same New York Times report notes that UNRWA informed US officials about the allegations on 24 January. Just two days later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the suspension of funding to UNRWA. 

Shockingly, the State Department made the announcement amid reports that Gaza was on the brink of famine, and despite acknowledging that “UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter.”

Like Lazzarini, Blinken made the decision without seeking any evidence from Israel, but solely based on the supposedly serious nature of the allegations alone. Blinken justified his decision to suspend aid to starving Palestinians by saying, “We haven’t had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves. But they are highly, highly credible.”

In a seemingly coordinated effort, other countries – including Germany, Britain, and Australia – swiftly followed suit. Even Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged suspending aid without first receiving any evidence from Israel or even asking Lazzarini to share any evidence he might have.

The funding crisis escalated to such an extent that Juliette Touma, the UNRWA director of communications, said that after “decades of working together,” in “just over 24 hours, nine of our donors suspended funding to UNRWA.”

Another dodgy dossier

As criticism of the aid suspensions mounted, Israeli foreign ministry officials released a dossier to several foreign news organizations.

But after seeing the dossier, both the Financial Times and the UK’s Channel 4 reported that it provided “no evidence” for the claims.

Former UNRWA head Chris Gunness compared it to the “dodgy dossier” used by Tony Blair to take Britain to war in Iraq.

“There is no actual evidence. There are accusations,” Gunness concluded.

Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, tried to justify its refusal to provide any actual evidence by claiming, “the very nature of the allegations makes it impossible for Israel to share all the evidence it has with UNRWA.”

“They think that we can give them intelligence information, knowing that some of their employees work for Hamas? Are you serious?” he asked.

But Israeli propagandist and spokesperson Eylon Levy declined to say if Israel had provided evidence even to the US and UK governments. “I’m not personally aware of what material may have been passed on between our intelligence agencies,” he stated to Channel 4 when pressed for proof of the claims.

Links to Hamas?

The Israeli foreign ministry continued to implement the three-step leaked plan to destroy UNRWA by making additional allegations of UNRWA’s cooperation with Hamas.

On 29 January, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported claims based on Israeli intelligence that “1,200 of UNRWA’s roughly 12,000 employees in Gaza has links to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and about half have close relatives who belong to the Islamist militant groups.”

The article also provided no evidence, citing only Israeli intelligence, and was co-written by Carrie Keller-Lynn, an American who volunteered for the Israeli military and has a personal relationship with an Israeli army spokesperson. 

Even if true, the allegations are meaningless. Hamas is the governing party in Gaza, making it self-evident that many UNRWA employees would be sympathetic or have family ties to the resistance movement. 

Similarly, it would be unsurprising if an employee of an Israeli NGO or aid group was sympathetic to the Israeli army or had family members in the ruling Likud party.

As Haaretz noted, UNRWA employees in the West Bank and other countries where the organization operates are usually more aligned with whatever Palestinian faction is dominant in that area.

‘We could not verify this’

The Israeli foreign ministry’s plan to paint UNRWA as linked to Hamas soon continued with new and bizarre allegations that Hamas had placed a massive data center directly underneath the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza. 

The Times of Israel claimed that the data center was “built precisely under the location where Israel would not consider looking initially, let alone target in an airstrike.”

But Israel has been bombing UNRWA schools and other UN facilities for decades, including when large numbers of civilians have been sheltering in them. No Hamas leader would imagine this would provide it any protection.

But as OSINT analyst Michael Kobs has shown, the alleged data center the Israeli army showed to foreign journalists was not under the UNRWA headquarters. 

Kobs also notes that when Tageschau journalist Sophie van der Tann was taken through a tunnel to see the alleged data center, she stated, “We could not verify” it was under the UNRWA headquarters.

Erasing the right of return 

But why is Israel determined to destroy UNRWA?

One reason is Israel’s ongoing effort to slowly starve Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants.

At the beginning of the war on 7 October, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant notoriously ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza, saying, “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.” The late January campaign to suspend UNRWA funding then came at a time when “famine” was already “around the corner” in Gaza, according to UN Emergency Relief Chief Martin Griffiths. Israeli officials knew that suspending funding for UNRWA at this time would only bring famine closer. One Israeli military official acknowledged to the WSJ on 13 February that “Without UNRWA, there is no humanitarian aid in Gaza.”

But there is another reason Israel wants to destroy UNRWA, which predates the current war. 

Palestinian political analyst and researcher Hanin Abou Salem explained that Israel wants to dismantle UNRWA because it transmits refugee status from generation to generation, which keeps the right of return for Palestinian refugees alive and “ensures that their hopes for returning to their ancestral homeland do not perish with the death of the original 1948 refugees.”

If UNRWA is dismantled and replaced by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as Israel hopes, this will guarantee that Palestinians can only be resettled in third countries and never return to the homes and lands from which Israel forcibly expelled their grandparents during the Nakba.

In 2017, Israel launched a propaganda campaign against UNRWA and succeeded in convincing the Trump administration to cut around $300 million in funding to the organization the following year, only for the Biden administration to restore $235 million in 2021. 

Destroying an idea

But with the start of the war on 7 October, Israel feels it has a second chance, not only to destroy the right of return, but also the “idea” of armed struggle to achieve it. 

Noga Arbell, a researcher at the right-wing Kohelet Forum, recently explained that UNRWA needs to be “annihilated” because it is the “source of the idea.” 

“It gives birth to more and more terrorists in all kinds of ways. UNRWA needs to be wiped out immediately – now – or Israel will miss the window of opportunity.”

UNRWA allegedly ‘gives birth to terrorists’ through its 706 schools, where some 543,075 Palestine refugee children receive free basic education. 

In Gaza, UNRWA uses Palestinian Authority (PA) textbooks and supplements these with its own materials. Israel has long been irked that these textbooks include lessons on the life of one of the most famous symbols of Palestinian armed resistance, an 18-year-old young woman and Palestinian refugee born in Lebanon, Dalal al-Mughrabi.

In 1978, Mughrabi led a group of Palestinian guerrillas from PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party to carry out an operation in Israel. 

According to the Israeli version of events, Mughrabi “led one of the deadliest suicide attacks in Israel’s history,” by hijacking a bus and taking its passengers hostage on the highway between Haifa and Tel Aviv. During the operation, the bus exploded, and “38 Israelis were murdered, including 13 children.”

Israel claims that UNRWA is, therefore, teaching “mass murder” by using PA books that encourage everyone to be like Mughrabi.

However, Palestinians claim that Israeli forces killed the hostages. 

You can kill a revolutionary, but not the revolution 

According to a 2008 report in the Guardian, Mughrabi and the Palestinian guerillas intended to attack the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv and hijacked two buses carrying civilians on the coastal road near Haifa. Along the way, they engaged in an intense 15-hour gun battle with Israeli forces.

Palestinians maintain the bus exploded, killing the guerillas and hostages, after it was fired on from the air by Israeli helicopters or elite Israel commandos, in a possible early instance of the mass Hannibal Directive.

Israeli forces implemented the Hannibal Directive on 7 October, killing large numbers of their own civilians – and burning many of them alive – using attack helicopters, tanks, and drones, while blaming all these deaths on Hamas. 

Even if Israel succeeds in executing its plan to destroy UNRWA, while starving and bombing tens of thousands to death in Gaza, it will not be able to erase the spirit of Dalal al-Mughrabi and the thousands of martyrs like her who have sacrificed themselves for the freedom of Palestinians.

Within 24 hours of the unsubstantiated accusations against UNRWA, the US, the UK, and 14 other nations suspended funding to the organization the Wall Street Journal described as the “main pillar of operations to move food aid, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies into Gaza.”

The abruptness of these cuts was particularly jolting in light of the looming threat of famine, as highlighted by Griffiths, who warned that Gaza was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

These drastic measures were instigated by allegations based on a dubious six-page dossier, arguably part of a meticulously crafted plan orchestrated by Israel’s foreign ministry, aimed at dismantling the humanitarian and educational infrastructure serving internally displaced Palestinians. 

This concerted effort to undermine UNRWA is nothing short of a calculated strategy to exert control over the narrative surrounding Palestinian refugees and to once again reshape the demographics in Palestine. 

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