The Biden Administration Joins Israel’s War on UNRWA

Following Washington’s lead, key US allies have cut funding for the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine—making them all complicit in genocide.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, THE NATION, FEBRUARY 28, 2024
A group of Palestinian children is pictured at a school run by UNWRA a in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on February 22, 2024. (Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When the 17 judges of the International Court of Justice issued their near-unanimous ruling on January 26, making clear that Israel’s actions in Gaza plausibly constituted genocide, they asserted the legitimacy of the world’s most influential judicial body to hold Israel provisionally accountable for those violations.

Israel was having none of it.

Just hours after the court’s decision was announced in The Hague, Israel went public with an unsubstantiated allegation that 12 Gazan employees of the UN’s Relief Works Agency, the primary body responsible for providing humanitarian support to Palestine refugees, supposedly were tied to Hamas and may have played some role in the attack on Israel on October 7. (In fact, the names of all UNRWA employees had been provided to Israel earlier in the year for Tel Aviv’s vetting—and Israel made no complaints.) Despite the lack of evidence, UNRWA—presumably in an effort to avoid a dangerous collective punishment by Israel’s allies—immediately announced that it was firing the named employees (two were confirmed dead) and the UN launched two separate investigations.

Not wanting to wait a moment, however, Washington announced on the same day that it was cutting its entire aid allocation to UNRWA, despite the agency’s irreplaceable role in getting desperately needed aid into Gaza. A few hours later, key US allies announced that they were joining Washington in cutting aid: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and new NATO-member Finland. The United States provides by far the largest annual donation available to the UN agency (although, at just over $300 million, it’s a pittance compared to the almost $4 billion the US sends to the Israeli military every year). And combined with the at least 15 countries that eventually joined the US cuts, the impact on UNRWA’s ability to provide even the most minimal of basic services is enormous. With those services destroyed by Israel’s war, this US role in further undermining Palestinians’ access to water, food, medicine, shelter, and fuel makes Washington—again —directly complicit in Israel’s genocide.

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Then things got worse. Two weeks later, on February 9, Israel launched another PR attack on UNRWA, this time claiming that a tunnel under the agency’s headquarters in Gaza City had been used by Hamas—variously identified as a communications center, a command center or a data center. Again no evidence was made public, but, among other responses, the US Senate bill authorizing $14 billion for unconditional aid to the Israeli military stated explicitly that none of the bill’s separate humanitarian aid (for conflict zones around the world) could go to UNRWA. US officials themselves had argued earlier that UNRWA was “the only game in town” in terms of getting any significant aid into Gaza, but the bill still imposed a permanent ban on US funding. (If passed by the House, it would even prevent UNRWA from receiving a tiny $300,000 grant that had already been approved.)

The impact of the aid cuts on the already threatened lives of 2.3 million displaced Gazans, as well as millions more Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, can hardly be overstated. US officials who suggested redirection of UNRWA funds to UNICEF and the World Food Program only showed their ignorance of conditions on the ground, and the capacities of aid organizations. UNICEF and WFP together have less than 70 staff on the ground in Gaza; UNRWA has over 13,000 providing, for more than half a century, all the services that ordinarily would be provided by a government civil service. Most of Gaza’s doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, street sweepers are UNRWA employees. Without UNRWA, all the UN agencies and NGOs would be unable to carry out their crucial work. Thousands, probably tens of thousands more civilians—especially babies, children, pregnant women, and the elderly—will die.

And there is another price to be paid as well. Along with its critical role in lifesaving humanitarian assistance, UNRWA remains the only international agency in the UN system whose mandate includes protection of the rights of Palestinians as refugees. The work of UNRWA, from its creation in 1949, was designed to continue until Palestinian refugees achieved “a just and durable solution to their plight” on the basis of all the human rights and refugee rights to which they are entitled.

That means that UNRWA’s work is unfinished until the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes, guaranteed by international law, is made real. Refugees—dispossessed in 1948 of their homes and land from what is now southern Israel—make up 70 percent of Gaza’s population. Without UNRWA, their right of return, indeed the very existence of Palestinians as a refugee community, is threatened with erasure. And that—creating conditions that make the survival of all or part of a threatened group as a group impossible—is part of the very definition of genocide.

No wonder Israel is so eager to get rid of UNRWA. And for the same reason, no wonder the defense of UNRWA remains such a critical factor in our continuing work for an immediate cease-fire and Palestinian access to unhindered humanitarian assistance in Gaza.

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace. She is the author of Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism.

Israel engineers “deep pockets of starvation” across Gaza

THE ELECTRONIC INTIFADA

Nora Barrows-Friedman, 14 February 2024

A crowd of children holding metal food containers.
Palestinian children face extreme hunger across Gaza. Deir El-Balah, 2 February. Omar Ashtawy, APA images

Israel is starving Gaza.

Children “are going without food for days, as aid convoys are increasingly denied permits to enter,” reported the BBC on 10 February.

The United Nations estimates that nearly one in every 10 Palestinian children in Gaza under 5 years old is now acutely malnourished.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters on 2 February that the agency’s partners have indicated a “sharp rise in acute malnutrition” across the population in Gaza, “with a 12-fold increase compared to the rate recorded before the hostilities.”

There are only 70-100 trucks entering Gaza per day “in the best case scenario,” with only “two of those trucks going to the northern governorates,” according to estimates by the Geneva-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Before Israel’s attacks began in October, approximately 500 trucks entered Gaza each day.

“What enters the Strip does not meet the minimum level of the population’s needs in light of the severe, continuous and accumulated deprivation of food, drinking water and medicine supplies [amid its] growing need due to the ongoing siege and genocide,” stated Lima Bustami, legal department director at Euro-Med.

“The situation is getting more complicated because the people living in the Gaza Strip are under siege from all sides, making it impossible for them to produce the food they need locally or get it from other sources,” Bustami added.

Last month, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide. The order was among a number of provisional measures issued by the court in a case which South Africa is taking against Israel.

Israel is supposed to inform the court within one month what steps it was taking to comply with the 26 January order. A full examination of South Africa’s case by the ICJ will take place at a later stage.

Declaring a state of famine “may find its way before the International Court of Justice,” said Bustami.

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Such a declaration “could either lead to the request of an amendment [to the provisional measures issued on 26 January]… or as additional evidence that the court will weigh during its consideration of the merits of the case and issuing its final ruling,” Euro-Med stated.

A recent report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) says that between 8 December and 7 February, the entire population of the Gaza Strip, approximately 2.3 million people, has been classified as in “crisis or worse.”

“This is the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country,” the IPC states.

Moreover, the IPC states that about half of the population is in a food emergency and “at least one in four households (more than half a million people) is facing catastrophic conditions” – characterized by an “extreme lack of food, starvation and exhaustion of coping capacities.”

According to the IPC, “even though the levels of acute malnutrition and non-trauma related mortality might not have yet crossed famine thresholds, these are typically the outcomes of prolonged and extreme food consumption gaps.”

The group notes the “increased nutritional vulnerability of children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly is a particular source of concern.”

Shipping containers left at port

Citing financial restrictions against UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, the Israeli government is holding up more than 1,000 shipping containers of vital food items at the Ashdod port, just 20 miles north of the Gaza boundary.

The shipments, which contain rice, flour, chickpeas, sugar and cooking oil, are enough to feed more than 1 million people for one month.

Last month, Israel said it would allow flour to enter Gaza through Ashdod, a major commercial port north of the Gaza boundary after international aid agencies warned of starvation in the northern areas and urged Israel to allow the use of Ashdod.

On 19 January, the White House issued a boastful statement saying that President Joe Biden “welcomed” Israel’s decision to “permit the shipment of flour for the Palestinian people directly through Ashdod port while our teams separately work on options for more direct maritime delivery of assistance into Gaza.”

But that flour has been sitting at the port for weeks.

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, has admitted that he blocked the shipments in coordination with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister.

Axios reported on Tuesday that Smotrich “blocked the transfer of the flour after he was notified that it was destined for UNRWA, the primary aid group in Gaza.”

“He ordered the Israeli customs service not to release the shipment as long as UNRWA is the recipient,” Axiosadded.

In response, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller referred to discussions with Israel aimed at allowing the aid to be delivered.

“We had a commitment from the government of Israel to let that flour go through, and we expect them to deliver on that commitment,” Miller said on Tuesday.

Last week, Israeli naval forces attacked a food aid convoy that was reportedly heading to northern Gaza.

Along with blocking or attacking aid trucks, Israeli forces are also shooting at fishers attempting to provide food for their hungry families. 

On 8 February, the bodies of two fishers “were recovered after their boat was reportedly struck by Israeli forces in western Rafah” the day before, reported the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“The port of Gaza has been severely damaged, and most of the fishing boats have been destroyed,” the UN added.

Israel is systematically destroying farms as well.

In December, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization used satellite imaging to assess and analyze damage to Gaza’s arable land.

The agency reported that more than 27 percent of all cropland in Gaza was damaged, as was more than 20 percent of all greenhouses. Nearly 500 irrigation wells were damaged as well, the UN noted.

At the end of January, however, the UN Satellite Centre “showed damage to 34 percent of arable land,” UN OCHA reported.

“Most of the infrastructure of the agrifood sector was damaged, ranging from commercial facilities (livestock farms, stores for products and inputs, etc.) to household facilities, such as home barns and animal shelters.”

“Deep pockets of starvation”

“Everyone in Gaza is hungry. Many are starving,” stated the World Health Organization on 8 February.

“Infectious diseases are spreading. Hunger is weakening people’s ability to fight off disease. Without enough food, more people will become sick and die,” the agency warned.

Phillippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, stated last week that half of the agency’s humanitarian aid mission requests to areas in northern Gaza “were denied” since the beginning of the year. 

The UN, he said, “has identified deep pockets of starvation and hunger in northern Gaza where people are believed to be on the verge of famine. At least 300,000 people living in the area depend on our assistance for their survival.”

Israel’s accusations that a handful of UNRWA staff participated in the 7 October attacks led by Hamas has prompted 16 countries to suspend their funding of the agency.

Settlers block aid

Meanwhile, Israeli forces have allowed – or encouraged – Israeli settlers to block and disrupt humanitarian aid convoys from entering Gaza through the southern Kerem Shalom crossing over recent weeks.

The area has been designated as a closed military zone since last month. “But there are no checkpoints at night, making it easier to bring in busloads of protesters,” according to The Washington Post.

Israelis have been holding dance parties while celebrating the military’s destruction in Gaza and the starvation of Palestinians.

“The army is with us, the police is with us,” a young Israeli taking part in the blocking of humanitarian aid told The Washington Post

“They don’t want us to be here, but they get it. They let us. We are talking with them, we are having fun with them, we are offering them everything they need,” the Israeli said.

In October, Israeli lawmaker Tally Gotliv advocated for using starvation as a weapon against Palestinians in Gaza, which is a war crime. 

“Without hunger and thirst among the Gazan population, we will not be able to recruit collaborators, we will not be able to recruit intelligence, we will not be able to bribe people, with food, drink, medicine, in order to obtain intelligence,” Gotliv said.

Palestinian human rights groups say that this kind of genocidal rhetoric by Israeli leaders is not an aberration. Rather, it is policy. 

“The starvation policy pursued by the Israeli authorities is an example of the collective punishment policies that Israel has been inflicting on the civilian population of Gaza, which have intensified since 7 October 2023,” said the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Al-Haq and Al Mezan in a joint statement earlier this month.

The groups added that “Israel’s use of starvation as a method of war is prohibited by international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”

“The most brutal militaries in history have used deliberate starvation as a tactic; the criminalization of such a tactic is a keystone of international law,” stated the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee. 

The decision by 16 countries to pause their funding of UNRWA and thereby collectively punish the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, especially after the International Court of Justice found that Israel is plausibly committing genocide, “represents a shift by several countries from potential complicity in genocide to direct involvement in engineered famine,” warned the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention.

The institute – named after Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” in 1944 – added that the decision by the 16 governments “is an attack on what remains of personal security, liberty, health and dignity in Palestine.”


NORA BARROWS-FRIEDMAN
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).

What Are We Doing??

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Within moments of the International Court of Justice issuing a preliminary finding on Friday morning that South Africa had made a plausible genocide case against Israel, Western media was suddenly gripped by a new storyline: 12 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, were alleged by Israel to have participated in the October 7 attacks.

In the most head-spinning pivot I’ve witnessed in my time covering global affairs, the entire conversation in the West (but definitely not the Global South or East, don’t forget that) changed on a dime when the U.S. responded instantly, pausing all funding to the relief agency. A dozen U.S. allies have followed suit.

One of the primary orders issued by the ICJ related to humanitarian aid, ordering Israel to stop blocking the flow of that aid as the U.N. warned of famine. Instead, Israel has launched its diplomatic assault on UNRWA, and has been allowing Israeli civilian protesters to physically block aid from entering.

We’re talking about the most important relief agency by miles in Gaza, one in which some 1.2 million displaced people are huddling in its schools, hoping to escape the Israeli bombs, tank shells, and bullets that have claimed the lives of 26,000 Palestinians and counting.

If you read the Western media, this is a simple situation: the relief agency employed terrorists, so it has to go. Yet those same people would never say the same thing about, say, a major police force found to have employed a militiaman from a white supremacist group. If a janitor at a university was found to be a terrorist, would we defund the university? You’d fire them, charge them if they committed a crime, and review what went wrong in your process. That’s exactly how UNRWA responded.

Norway is a close ally of Europe, but it is among the few not to abandon the refugee agency, and their foreign minister’s comment reads, to me, unimpeachably sound and ethical. “If you have 30,000 employees who are embedded in society,” he said, “to try to be absolutely certain that you have zero risk is very difficult even if you have zero tolerance, which is exactly why I want to continue our funding. I urge other donors to do so and then we will collectively work with UNRWA to make sure everything comes on the table with what actually happened and what UNRWA will do to prevent something like this from happening again, but we cannot collectively punish all the people who are refugees.”

In a sane world, that would be that, and we’d wait for the investigation. In this world, the agency is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy by the end of February, as they announced today.

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The ICJ’s order that Israel take concrete steps to avert the plausible genocide underway has been washed away, even as Israel has less than a month to report back to the court on its progress. In its place is debate over October 7 and the role of the 12 former employees. That the 152 UNRWA employees who’ve been killed in the war by Israel get no attention in this news cycle perfectly symbolizes the narrative asymmetry.

UNRWA, however, was not a random Israeli target. Leaders of the hard-right government have been gunning for the agency for years, and now they see their chance. The claim that the U.N. agency is a front for Hamas is the public rationale, but the less-public one is more straightforward: Israel does not want the Palestinians to be considered refugees under international law, because that implies some right to occupied territory that Israeli leaders are quite clear they intend to annex.

Most recently, on January 9, the Knesset discussed the issue, video of which has subsequently gone viral. “Our main goal in the war is to eliminate the threat and not to neutralize it and we know how to eliminate terrorists. It is more difficult for us with an idea. UNRWA is the source of the idea,” said Israeli Knesset member Noga Arbell on January 6. “And it will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA. And this destruction must begin immediately .… They must be abandoned. Or they must go to hell.”

The campaign against UNRWA continued over the following days in the Knesset. Later in January, the Christian Broadcasting Network highlighted Knesset members Sharren Haskel and Simcha Rothman, both of whom were calling to shut down UNRWA. Haskel had founded a caucus dedicated to combating UNRWA nine years earlier, CBN noted. “If we want a different future, a future of maybe coexistence, that we’ll be able to live here securely, things must change, and it starts with UNRWA,” Haskel told CBN. UNRWA is an organization of the United Nations that is a complete cover up for Hamas activities and terrorist activities. Hamas has taken over this organization.”

On January 17, the week before the ICJ ruling, I was at a State Department press briefing when spokesperson Matt Miller was asked about Haskel and Rothman’s calls to defund UNRWA. (I’m pretty sure the reporter works for CBN; I’ll confirm tomorrow when I’m there.)

Miller gave an unusually forceful response.

“I am not going to respond to the comments by individual members of the Knesset, but I will say that UNRWA has done and continues to do invaluable work to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza at great personal risk to UNRWA members. I believe it’s over 100 UNRWA staff members have been killed doing this lifesaving work, and we continue to not only support it but we continue to commend them for the really heroic efforts that they make oftentimes while making the greatest sacrifice,” he said.

The reporter followed up by citing a Jerusalem Post report that some UNRWA “teachers and students celebrated Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel October 7 and over half of the Hamas terrorists behind that massacre were graduates of UNRWA schools in Gaza.”

Miller again pushed back. “Well, I think most people in Gaza are graduates of UNRWA schools,” he said accurately. “There’s a little bit of a breakdown in logic there. But I will answer the question by saying, look, whenever we see reports of that nature, we ask specific questions about UNRWA and ask that they be followed up. It does not change the lifesaving work that UNRWA is doing every day in Gaza that I just detailed a moment ago.”

Yet, just nine days later, with the situation deteriorating by the hour, that “lifesaving work” was suddenly expendable.

Over the weekend, at least a dozen Israeli government ministers participated in a major conference organized to create a framework for a post-war scenario in Gaza. Its goal was the expulsion of Palestinians and their substitution with Israeli settlers. It was short-handed as the “Resettle Gaza Conference,” and its official name was “Conference for the Victory of Israel – Settlement Brings Security: Returning to the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria.”

After South Africa filed its genocide charges with The Hague, talk from Israeli ministers about their efforts to depopulate Gaza was largely muzzled. The whole world was watching, after all.

The world is no longer watching, and so the talk has gotten loud again. “If we don’t want another October 7, we need to go back home and control [Gaza],” said National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. “We need to find a legal way to voluntarily emigrate.”

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi unpacked the thought: “’Voluntary’ is at times a state you impose until they give their consent.'” The White House announced that it was “troubled” by the conference and the plans outlined there. But it pledged no action.


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