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US, Israeli attacks on UNRWA push agency toward collapse

US, Israeli attacks on UNRWA push agency toward collapse

The only aid agency that could stave off famine in Gaza faces an existential crisis

Reporting | Middle East

As famine looms in northern Gaza, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees is hurtling toward collapse.

“What I can say today is that we can run our operation until the end of May, whereas a month ago I had just the visibility for the next week or two weeks,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Palestinian refugees agency (UNRWA), told reporters in Geneva last week, just days after Israel denied him entry into Gaza. “But that shows also how bad the financial situation of the organization is.”

The money crunch stems in part from a fateful U.S. decision. When Israel accused a dozen of UNRWA’s 13,000 Gaza-based employees of facilitating the Oct. 7 attacks, American officials immediately paused funding for the organization pending an investigation. Many other top donors followed suit, leaving UNRWA scrambling to stay afloat.

It’s since become clear that Israel’s accusations relied on less-than-definitive evidence. This revelation led most funders to turn the spigot back on. But the U.S., with its unusually deep pockets, is now banned from changing course.

Less than two weeks ago, Congress passed a law blocking all funding for UNRWA until March 2025. The timing of this decision is nothing short of disastrous, according to Christopher Gunness, a former spokesperson for UNRWA. “Mass starvation has already set in, but without UNRWA it's impossible to even slow that down,” Gunness said.

Despite Israel's claims to the contrary, there is no way to replace UNRWA's role in Gaza, especially amid the largest Palestinian humanitarian crisis since Israel’s war of independence, according to experts on humanitarian aid and UNRWA’s history. Analysts also fear that potential interruptions in the agency’s operations across the Middle East — including in war-torn Syria and crisis-riven Lebanon — could further undermine regional stability.

A State Department spokesperson told RS that getting aid to Palestinians in Gaza is a “team effort.” “[W]hile we will continue to provide funding to organizations like the World Food Programme [WFP], we will be looking to other donors to continue to provide critical funding to UNRWA as long as our funding remains paused,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

But groups like WFP simply don’t have the capacity to fill the gap made by defunding UNRWA, according to a humanitarian working to get aid into Gaza who requested anonymity to prevent Israeli retribution.

“The work they do on a day-to-day basis, no one else does it, and you couldn't stand up an organization to do it,” the humanitarian worker told RS. “There's literally no other place for [Gazans] to go.”

A love-hate relationship

Decades removed from its founding, it can be easy to forget where UNRWA came from. In a practical sense, it sprung from the need to get aid to 700,000 Palestinian refugees when it became clear that Israel would not let them return home after the 1948 war. But ideologically, UNRWA's story begins in the Tennessee Valley.

In the 1930s, Congress launched a New Deal project known as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was a development initiative; it enlisted some of those hardest hit by the Great Depression and put them to work building dams, boosting crop yields, and bringing electricity to rural communities. It was, by most accounts, a rousing success.

After the humanitarian disaster of the 1948 war, President Harry Truman hoped TVA chief Gordon Clapp could bring that success to the Middle East. With the support of the fledgling U.N., which had yet to establish an agency for refugees, Clapp visited the region in 1949 and became convinced that the Jordan Valley and other fertile areas in the Levant were ripe for TVA-style development. The U.N. General Assembly agreed, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was born.

It didn’t take long for “works” to disappear from the mission. Development projects sputtered, missing deadlines due to infighting among host countries and the refugees’ general unwillingness to be relocated once more. “Most refugees refused to work,” said Jalal al-Husseini, an expert on UNRWA’s history and an associate researcher at the Insitut français du Proche Orient (Ifpo). “They wanted to go back home.” Donor states also realized that large-scale public works are a good bit more expensive than more mundane relief projects.

UNRWA’s other activities — from schools to healthcare facilities and aid distribution — were far more successful. The organization provided much-needed help to the governments of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, each of which had little capacity to manage the refugee influx on their own.

Besides a brief period in the early 1950s, Israel had little to do with UNRWA until 1967, when its forces routed Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the provocatively named Six Day War. The conquest created a problem: As an occupying power, Israel was suddenly in charge of the welfare of millions of Palestinians. Tel Aviv quickly struck a deal with UNRWA to keep its operations going in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since the vast majority of UNRWA’s local staff is Palestinian, the agency was “never really seen by Israel as a neutral and independent and impartial U.N. organization,” according to Lex Takkenberg, a 30-year veteran of UNRWA who left the agency in 2019.

“It started off with an explicit request by Israel for UNRWA to continue operating,” Takkenberg said. “Since that time, there has sort of been a hatred-love relationship.”

Israel-Palestine watchers will recognize the pattern. Since the 1960s, Israel has periodically bemoaned the contents of UNRWA textbooks or accused staff of ties to Palestinian political groups (or terrorist organizations, in Tel Aviv’s telling), drawing scrutiny from Western donors. UNRWA responds by excising objectionable content from courses and firing employees with apparent conflicts of interest. Over the years, these back-and-forths forced the agency to develop a comprehensive “neutrality framework” to keep politics out of its work.

“Almost without exception, Israel never provided evidence” that employees had ties to groups like Hamas, Takkenberg recalled. But UNRWA would still usually fire them to protect the organization as a whole. “Then the Israelis would be back to business as usual,” he said. “It never reached the point that [Israel] asked UNRWA to stop operations.”

In substance, the Oct. 7 allegations were the latest entry in this story. Israeli officials made bold allegations that UNRWA employees facilitated the attacks but have yet to provide evidence, even to U.N. investigators.

But the reaction from donors was different. While the International Court of Justice has twice demanded a surge of aid into Gaza to avert disaster, most Western countries suspended support for the strip’s leading relief group. Many have restarted their funding, but the U.S., United Kingdom, and Australia are still holding out.

“Prohibiting the Biden administration from contributing to UNRWA creates a large gap in the Agency’s annual operating budget,” said William Deere, the head of UNRWA’s Washington office. The shortfall “will make it harder for UNRWA to assist starving Gazans and potentially further weaken regional stability,” Deere argued.

UNRWA in crisis

UNRWA is, of course, no stranger to crises. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Israel imposed a blanket curfew on the West Bank and Gaza, leaving many Palestinians with limited access to food. Quick mobilization from UNRWA prevented a bad situation from getting worse, according to Takkenberg.

“I organized massive food distributions during short periods that Israel lifted the curfew so that people could collect food from distribution points,” he remembered.

In the tumultuous period since, UNRWA has managed to stay afloat and provide aid across the Levant despite wars and a blockade in Gaza; a brutal conflict in Syria; and a protracted economic crisis in Lebanon.

When President Donald Trump cut off funding in 2018, it came as a shock. “We found out that the Americans were not going to be giving us their money when the check did not arrive in the post,” Gunness, the former spokesperson, recalled. This diplomatic equivalent of an Irish goodbye lit a fire under UNRWA staff, who put fundraising efforts into overdrive and filled the gap with pledges from wealthy Gulf countries. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly backed the effort to avert “disaster” in Gaza.

But all of these crises pale in comparison to the trial that the organization faces today. Gulf donors have so far failed to fill the gap left by the U.S. decision to cut off funding. At least 154 UNRWA employees have been killed since Oct. 7, and many of its facilities have been destroyed in the bombing. These direct attacks have been paired with an unprecedented Israeli PR effort to discredit the organization, all with the substantive backing of a Democratic U.S. president.

Fringe Israeli activists have long argued that UNRWA is illegitimate in some fundamental sense, perpetuating a fanciful dream that Palestinians will eventually return home. Its existence, they argue, encourages false hope and prevents an end to the conflict. As Israel’s political scene has lurched to the right, this view has become more popular. Now, multiple members of Netanyahu’s cabinet are publicly opposed to UNRWA’s very existence.

Israel is now actively working to undermine UNRWA. In January, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich blocked a large shipment of U.S. aid in order to stop it from reaching UNRWA. The U.N. claims that Israeli officials are holding up visas for aid workers affiliated with the agency.

“UNRWA are part of the problem, and we will now stop working with them,” an Israeli spokesperson said last week. “We are actively phasing out the use of UNRWA because they perpetuate the conflict rather than try and alleviate the conflict.”

Israeli opposition can only do so much to block the agency’s work in the short term, according to Takkenberg, who noted that other groups are likely importing humanitarian aid in their own name and simply handing it off to UNRWA upon arrival.

But that workaround has its limits as Israel allows only a trickle of aid to enter Gaza each day. There are currently as many as 30,000 trucks sitting in Egypt waiting to cross the border, according to a Jordanian official who spoke with NPR.

“There are trucks that have been at the border for three months,” the humanitarian worker told RS. “There's all sorts of crazy restrictions that make no sense, even from a security standpoint,” they said, adding that they’ve had medical equipment and food confiscated during inspections.

This has left UNRWA, and Gaza as a whole, on the verge of collapse. Israel and its Western backers will likely regret their role in bringing the crisis to this point, argued Gunness. “Any donor governments, especially those who are friends of Israel, who think that it's somehow in Israel's security interests to have millions of angry, hungry, radicalized, mourning, grief-stricken people living in appalling refugee camps and other circumstances on the doorstep of Israel, I wonder what planet they are living in,” he said.

Palestinians distribute food supplies at an UNRWA school on Jan. 24, 2024, after Western donors announce the cessation of support for UN efforts in the Gaza Strip. (Anas Mohammed/ Shutterstock)

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