Picture credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Artillery Row

An unconvincing case against the UNRWA

It should take more evidence to strip the Palestinians of essential support

Whenever the fighting stops in Gaza, one stark reality awaits our world — how best to rescue, then care for, more than two million people suffering from starvation, disease and devastating grief after the loss of more than 30,000 lives in Gaza, up to 70 per cent of them women and children? That huge challenge lies, patently, at the centre of any new horizon promising peace and co-existence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Yet in recent weeks we have watched a series of moves, by governments, politicians, aid agencies and the standard-bearer of peace and humanitarian intervention, the United Nations, that have effectively disarmed the very organisation that represents the best, if not the only route to looking after those tens of thousands of Palestinians trapped for months in the conflict. The damage done is extraordinary, given the humanitarian crisis, and much of it has been self-inflicted.

For once a straight timeline on the narrative helps. On January 18 this year the Israeli government called a meeting with the head of the UN’s agency for aid to the Palestinians, and read to him from a dossier of Israeli intelligence alleging that a dozen Palestinian employees of the agency in Gaza had participated in the bloody, murderous attacks across the border in Israel on October 7 last year that triggered Israel’s subsequent invasion.

The Israelis did not provide the UN chief with a copy of that dossier. Nor did they respond when the UN chief reminded Israeli intelligence officials that they had not raised concerns when vetting agency employees in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank as recently as late last year. Yet the UN still sacked the employees.

“That decision, to sack the Palestinianes named, opened the floodgates,” says a veteran  of humanitarian interventions at the UN’s Headquarters in New York. “The UN looked guilty, acted guilty, yet we hadn’t even seen the evidence, let alone investigated for ourselves.” 

Almost half the agency’s budget was lost within days, at a moment of great need

What followed was a tidal wave of desertions among those that fund the Palestinian aid agency — quite unprecedented in the 75 years of the UN’s existence (by the way, that’s how many years the UN agency has been caring for the Palestinians). The United States, picking up 25 per cent of the Palestinian aid tab for decades, suspended contributions, and a dozen others followed, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, the lead players, all followed Washington’s cue. Almost half the agency’s budget was lost within days, at a moment of great need.

The result? “An even great disaster, already underway,” to quote Jamie McGoldrick, the Scot who heads the Agency’s desperate attempts to pre-empt even greater loss of life and suffering in Gaza. “We are at breaking point,” he reported mid-February, surveying the work his teams attempt when it comes to providing food, water and healthcare to tens of thousands of displaced people, in an environment where diseases and starvation are rife.

Fast forward to late February, and another dossier, leaked by US Intelligence to the American media after being filed to the US Congress, raises serious questions about what the Israeli government alleged back in January.

The dossier acknowledged the inevitable.The UN agency working with the Palestinians employs 30,000 people, 90 per cent of them Palestinian. Of course, the UN staff contains folks who barely conceal their anger towards Israel, something I recognised from my years working as a correspondent in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. That made the accusations credible, according to the US Intelligence file.

But the dossier, released on February 21, reported “low confidence” that UN employees had participated in those awful attacks on October 7. It dispelled the idea that the UN worked with Hamas beyond establishing how best to deliver aid. It noted, tellingly, that the Israeli government has not shared its intelligence on those sacked UN employees with the United States. And then it offered the thought that “Israeli bias over UN activities serves to mischaracterise much of the assessments of UN activities and so results in distortions.”

That same day, February 21, the G20, representing the world’s leading economies, assembled in Brazil, the country that is this year’s Chairman. Whatever our doubts about such talkfests, the likes of China, India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brazil sit at the same table with the G7. It has become the kind of forum where the coming powers have the microphone too, and where plain speaking is encouraged.

Brazil took the gavel and declared that wholesale reform of the United Nations was the chair’s number one priority this coming year. Way to go, surely. Because the tragedy over what has happened to the prime aid channel in Gaza speaks to a UN system crying out for change, and to re-discover the imperative to stand up and act on behalf of humanity. 

Wherever the latest peace plan leads, we see all too starkly the need to assist those two million Gazans. In the short term, what is the alternative to that far from perfect UN agency? Surely we want those aid workers, equipped in the name of humanity, ready for what Kofi Annan called the “responsibility to protect” the innocent and the helpless. Besides, any search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the long term hinges to a serious extent on this current emergency.

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