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.
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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