In Gaza, a strip of land that is rapidly deteriorating, only a few international aid organizations are able to continue their operations. The United Nations is one of them.
The Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, was established in 1949 to provide assistance in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. It aims to support the Palestinians who were displaced from their homes due to the establishment of the state of Israel.
According to the agency’s head, the crucial assistance that two million Gazans depend on may soon come to an end. This is due to the suspension of funding by several Western governments, who have raised allegations of UNRWA staff involvement in the attacks on Israel that occurred on 7 October.
The mission currently operates shelters for the displaced and distributes the limited aid permitted by Israel – however, its impact extends far beyond these efforts. UNRWA offers essential infrastructure and resources that Gaza has been desperately missing due to its ongoing cycles of violence, blockade, and poverty.
It operates medical and educational facilities, including teacher training centres and nearly 300 primary schools. Additionally, it is responsible for creating the textbooks that provide education to young Palestinians. In Gaza alone, it provides employment to approximately 13,000 individuals. Being the largest UN agency operating in Gaza, it has played a crucial role in humanitarian efforts.
And it has also become a topic of debate, with different parties expressing their opinions over the years. Israel strongly opposes its existence, arguing that it reinforces the Palestinians’ refugee status and fuels their aspirations for a right of return to their ancestral land, which they were displaced from in 1948 and subsequent conflicts.
The plight of refugees has been a central concern in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many Palestinians hold a deep desire to return to their ancestral homeland, which now includes parts that are within the borders of Israel. Israel strongly disagrees with that claim and has frequently voiced its concerns about the structure of UNRWA due to its policy of allowing refugee status to be passed down through generations.
‘Hate and intolerance’
In addition, Israeli governments have consistently criticised the agency’s teaching and textbooks, as they believe they promote anti-Israel perspectives.
In 2022, the Israeli watchdog IMPACT-se reported that UNRWA educational material allegedly conveyed a narrative suggesting that Israel was undermining Palestinian identity, distorting Palestinian heritage, and erasing the cultural heritage of Jerusalem. The report also claimed that the agency promoted sentiments of anti-Semitism, hate, intolerance, and a lack of neutrality.
The European Commission has identified what it considers to be “anti-Semitic material” in certain schoolbooks, which it claims includes content that incites violence. The European Parliament has consistently emphasized the need for EU funding to the Palestinian Authority to be contingent upon the removal of such content. UNRWA has stated that previous reports regarding its educational material were deemed as “inaccurate and misleading.” The organization clarified that the books in question were not utilized in its schools.
In 2018, the Trump administration, known for its strong support of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decided to completely stop providing financial assistance to UNRWA, citing concerns about the organization’s effectiveness.
Now, with the funding from several Western governments being frozen, the agency finds itself in a precarious situation once again. This could have significant consequences for the 5.3 million Palestinian refugees who are registered with it. The US, one of the countries involved in the decision, remains its largest donor, providing approximately $340m (£268m) in 2022. Germany, like other countries, has also halted its financing, contributing $162m that year.
Israel has consistently criticised branches of the UN for their alleged bias and antisemitism. And now, a government facing mounting scrutiny both domestically and internationally regarding the conflict in Gaza has seized upon this chance to strengthen its position – and subtly redirect the attention.
Israel’s Western allies have an opportunity to demonstrate understanding and support for Israel, while also maintaining pressure on its government to curb the offensive.
Even though funds were paused, White House National Security Adviser John Kirby emphasised that the actions of a few staff members should not reflect on the entire agency. He also highlighted that the agency has played a crucial role in saving countless lives in Gaza. They are engaged in significant work.
Israel’s foreign minister has criticised UNRWA, suggesting it should not be involved in post-conflict Gaza. This raises concerns about who will be responsible for rebuilding the devastated territory if the United Nations is not involved.