Freezing aid to Gaza: Israel’s war against UNRWA

February 2, 2024
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini talks to displaced people in southern Gaza last year. Photo: Mohamed Hinnawi/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Imperilled Palestinians in Gaza had little time to celebrate the January 26 order of the International Court of Justice.

In a case brought by South Africa, intended to facilitate a ceasefire and ease the suffering of the Gaza populace, Israel received the unwanted news that it had to, among other obligations, ensure compliance with the UN Genocide Convention. This included its military.

The ICJ also ruled that Israel must prevent and punish “the direct and public incitement to genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza and permit basic services and humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip.

Within hours Israel, outraged by an organisation its officials have decried as “anti-Semitic”, found an excuse to flaunt the ruling.

Twelve employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the agency responsible for distributing aid in Gaza, were accused (not found) by Israel’s intelligence agency Shin Bet, of involvement in the Hamas attacks of October 7.

The response from UNRWA was swift. Contracts were terminated and an investigation was launched, including a full inquiry into allegations made against the organisation.

The agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini promised on January 27 that: “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution”.

Not content with this, Israel took to the campaign trail hoping to rid Gaza of the UN agency it has despised for years.

UNRWA exists as a direct result of Israeli foreign policy: it is a salutary reminder of Palestinian suffering and dispossession.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz expressed his loathing for UNRWA. “We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza,” he stated on Shabbat.

“UNRWA is not the solution — many of its employees are Hamas affiliates with murderous ideologies, aiding in terror activities and preserving its authority.”

Katz dismissed the entire enterprise of aid through a UN outlet as a terroristic extension, rather than the ghastly product of Israel’s own ruthless, generational war against Palestinians.

Western nations, many with military ties with Israel and sluggish about holding Israel to account, were relieved by the distraction.

Rather than assessing their own export regime, including removing the licences from Israeli weapons companies, within hours, nine states had suspended their allocation of aid.

Australia, along with the United States and Canada, rushed to condemn UNRWA and freeze funding. Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland followed suit.

The measure of rage could now be adjusted and retargeted.

A spokesperson for the British government was “appalled by allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attack against Israel, a heinous act of terrorism that the UK government has repeatedly condemned”.

The US State Department was “extremely troubled” and had “temporarily paused additional funding.

Canada was also “deeply troubled by the allegations relating to some UNRWA employees”.

Australian foreign minister Penny Wong said a suspension of funding was sensible. This is despite her also acknowledging that UNRWA provides “essential services in Gaza directly to those who need it, with more than 1.4 million Palestinians currently sheltering in its own facilities”.

UNRWA chief Philippa Lazzarini was dismayed by the speed at which the funding had been halted, saying: “These decisions threaten our ongoing humanitarian work across the region including and especially in the Gaza Strip”.

Given that 12 individuals are being investigated from a pool of 30,000, the decision to halt funding is extreme.

Johann Soufi, a lawyer and former director of the agency’s legal office in Gaza, gave this assessment to Agence-France Presse: “Sanctioning UNRWA, which is barely keeping the entire population of Gaza alive, for the alleged responsibility of a few employees, is tantamount to collectively punishing the Gazan population, which is living in catastrophic conditions.”

NSW Greens Senator and defence spokesman Senator David Shoebridge said: “The one temporary pause [Senator Wong] has been able to achieve is not the bombing or killing, or even weapons exports, it’s providing aid to [Palestinians].”

For Israel, cutting the aid means cutting the Palestinians’ means of survival.  Along the way, international law can be mocked and ignored.

It is a grim irony that the provisional measures outlined by the ICJ order, which include increasing humanitarian aid to Gaza, are being frustrated by signatories to the UN Genocide Convention.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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