This year commemorates the 75th anniversary of the establishment of UNRWA in 1949, intended to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees displaced during the Nakba. Unfortunately, as we bear witness to yet another Palestinian Nakba orchestrated by the same occupation forces, Israel is making renewed attempts to undermine and dismantle UNRWA amid widespread destruction, bloodshed, and forced expulsions.

This essay attempts to address fundamental questions regarding the challenges faced by UNRWA, its reasons for existence, the reasons behind the attempts to dismantle it, and it explores lasting solutions for the Palestinian refugees. 

Why has Israel been trying to dismantle the UNRWA?

Israel's persistent efforts to dismantle UNRWA stem from viewing the agency as a challenge to its narrative. The refugee status assigned to Palestinians after the 1948 Nakba, passed down through generations, keeps the Palestine question alive. Some in Israel perceive UNRWA as a tool delegitimizing the state's right to exist, especially as it upholds the Palestinian right of return. Defunding or dismantling UNRWA is seen as a means to erase the long shadow cast on Israel's original dispossession of Palestinians. By undermining the agency, Israel aims to relegate the historical issue to the past, shirking its responsibility for the future of Palestinian refugees. This approach seeks to evade accountability and overlook the enduring consequences of the Nakba, hindering efforts toward a just and lasting resolution. 

By targeting UNRWA, Israel is using its own disregard for International law against a UN agency. The argument is essentially correct: Refugehood and dependance on humanitarian aid should not be permanent over generations. But Israel's argument on the reason for this situation is completely dishonest. It is not UNRWA’s aid that perpetuates Palestinians’ refugee status and miserable living conditions, but Israel’s denial of their right to return, as well as its occupation and closure that stifles Palestinian economy and people's prospects of supporting themselves and of living in dignity.

How is Israel leveraging the current attack on Gaza as a means to undermine and dismantle UNRWA?

In recent events, 300 UNRWA employees, all Palestinians, have been killed in Gaza since October 7. Israel has not only targeted them but also attempted to link them to the attack on Israeli army bases and civilian communities on October 7. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern over the unprecedented number of deaths among UN staff, a sentiment met with Israeli indifference. Despite Israel's claims of UNRWA's alignment with militant entities, the alleged actions of a few individuals should not lead to collective punishment for the entire UNRWA and Palestinian population. It is essential to recognize that these individuals are part of an occupied and besieged population. The continuous attacks on UNRWA staff and facilities by the occupying power go unchecked without accountability. Instead of focusing on punitive measures against individuals, such as dismissals or disciplinary actions, using these allegations as a basis to defund or dismantle the agency lacks logical coherence, especially when the occupying power remains unaccountable for its actions.

To exacerbate the situation, Israel announced it wouldn't renew one UN staff member's visa and would deny another's visa application following UN criticism of Israel's disproportionate targeting of Gaza's civilians and infrastructure. The actions align with the Dahiyeh Doctrine, an Israeli policy developed during the 2006 war on Lebanon, aiming to destroy civilian infrastructure to pressure the population against armed resistance forces. This approach in Gaza, including targeting UNRWA facilities, serves Israel's goals of rendering Gaza uninhabitable and manipulating the interrelation between UNRWA, Palestinian refugees, and Israel's creation and legitimacy.

What’s the risk of defunding the UNRWA?

Defunding UNRWA amid the ongoing crisis constitutes a grave risk, tantamount to complicity in exacerbating the suffering of millions of Palestinian refugees. The agency plays a pivotal role in providing essential services such as education, healthcare, and social assistance to expelled Palestinian communities. A withdrawal of financial support could lead to a severe humanitarian crisis, leaving countless Palestinians without access to vital resources, worsening their already precarious living conditions. In the Gaza strip in particular there is already widespread hunger and a deep humanitarian crisis as a result of Israel’s attack of more than a hundred days. Defunding UNRWA makes this situation even worse as there is simply no other organization that has the capacity to provide immediate aid.

Countries supporting the decision to suspend funding for UNRWA should shift their focus to the root causes that necessitate the existence of UNRWA and seek a real solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. It's essential to examine how UNRWA institutions and staff have continuously faced attacks by occupation forces without any of these countries holding Israel accountable. 

This decision by US President Biden, followed by the support of several countries  is a gross brutal act of collective punishment that enables and expedites the Israeli government's genocidal acts. 

Instead of diverting funds away from UNRWA, these countries should actively address the root cause of expulsion and displacement and take responsibility to find a lasting solution to the problem rather than find excuses to evade accountability and meanwhile they should do as much as possible to provide the necessary support to make unrwa functional so they can help the palestinian refugees enduring the crisis cause by the Israeli government brutal slaughter of Gaza enabled by their support. This approach would promote genuine efforts to resolve the longstanding problems faced by Palestinian refugees. 

Are we looking for a sustainable solution for UNRWA or for The Palestinian Refugees?

It is illogical for UNRWA to persist in serving the entire Palestinian refugee population solely based on unpredictable and last-minute funding. This continuous funding approach fails to address the root of the Palestinian refugee problem, merely sustaining the current unjust and unbearable situation. Instead of suggesting defunding as a means of evading responsibility, countries involved in funding UNRWA should actively seek long-term, lasting solutions for Palestinian refugees. This involves addressing the underlying causes of displacement and advocating for the right of return, ensuring a more comprehensive and sustainable resolution to the issue. Discussions around the sustainability of UNRWA should focus on embracing a comprehensive approach rather than defunding. The responsibility lies in advocating for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homes, supporting their return, and contributing to a just and lasting resolution that ensures a more stable and secure future for all those affected and for all who live on this land.

UNRWA's Dual Role: Enabler and Concern for Israeli Interests"

In both the West Bank and Gaza, UNRWA's presence serves as a stabilizing force, allowing Israel to maintain control without assuming full responsibility for the well-being of the occupied population. However, there are differing perspectives within the Israeli security establishment, with some emphasizing the need for stability and others expressing concerns about potential security challenges in the event of UNRWA's demise.

While some Israeli authorities fear the collapse of UNRWA's services could lead to chaos in the occupied territories and neighboring countries, others reject the agency's symbolic significance. The rejection is rooted in the belief that acknowledging the right of return for Palestinian refugees challenges the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Many Israelis see UNRWA as a hindrance to their interests, as it perpetuates the idea of Palestinian return, seen as incompatible with preserving Israel's identity.

While debates among Palestinians may revolve around the efficiency and impact of UNRWA, Israel perceives the agency as an adversary, possibly due to its trans-generational nature. The refugee status, initially assigned to 750,000 Palestinians after the 1948 Nakba, has been passed down to most of their descendants. Consequently, UNRWA's history, geography, and mode of operation have become intricately linked, if not synonymous, with the ongoing Palestinian refugee issue. The perpetually unresolved refugee problem leads to repetitive extensions of UNRWA's mandate in Palestine and neighboring countries by the UN General Assembly.

Amidst the attack on Gaza, the Israeli government seizes an opportunity to politically and logistically cripple UNRWA, with the ultimate goal of forcing the agency out of Gaza. 

Israel: From Defund to Destroy UNRWA

For Israel, the persistence of the Palestinian refugee question, intertwined with UNRWA, is a painful reminder of its historical actions of dispossession and expulsion during the Nakba. Many Israeli Jews and supporters around the world of the Zionist project view UNRWA as a tool aimed at delegitimizing Israel's right to exist, particularly through its support of the Palestinian right of return, posing an existential threat to the Israeli regime.

In 2017, Netanyahu conveyed to Nikki Haley, then US Ambassador to the UN, that it was time to dismantle UNRWA and merge it with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR, focused on providing humanitarian aid and logistical support for refugees, lacks mechanisms for reparations or repatriation. Merging UNRWA with UNHCR would deny Palestinians access and undermine their historical rights.

Israel's relentless lobbying for UNRWA's defunding, especially by the United States, achieved partial success in 2018 when President Trump halted funding. The decision was later reversed by the Biden Administration in 2020, not to preserve the Palestinian right of return but to avert regional upheaval challenging Israel.

The ongoing attempt by Israel to physically destroy UNRWA-run facilities and target its staff raises questions about the agency's future operational essence. Regardless, a post-Genocide Gaza will necessitate increased international involvement for reconstruction, with UNRWA likely shouldering a significant burden. Israel's ultimate goal may lie in making Gaza's reconstruction and governance as challenging as possible for the international community and the United Nations.