Defunding UNRWA Was Never About Hamas

The refugee agency is a reminder that Palestinian refugees exist and have inalienable political rights—a truth the Israeli government finds deeply inconvenient.

Yousef Aljamal

A child sits sideways looking through a torn canvas wall.
A child plays in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, on June 23, 2014. Some 1.5 million Palestinian refugees live in camps where UNRWA provides essential services. Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images

Ahmad Alhaaj, a 90-year old Palestinian, was displaced from his village of Al-Sawafir Al-Sharqiya at gunpoint by a Zionist militia in 1948. He lived his entire life in a rental house in the hope that he would one day return, but passed away on January 17 in the north of Gaza under Israel’s siege. 

Alhaaj was among the 70% of Palestinians, including my family, who remain refugees of the 1947 – 1948 war. The UN created the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 1949 to support those refugees, after Israel refused to implement UN Resolution 194 mandating Palestinian refugees’ return and it became clear to the world that the their plight would not end soon. Today, 4.7 million refugees like Alhaaj turn to the UNRWA for basic necessities like shelter, food and education. I attended UNRWA schools, and without the free access to schooling and healthcare UNRWA gave me and my family, I would not be holding a PhD today. 

The agency is now under a fierce attack by the Israeli government, which aims to dismantle it based on allegations that Israeli intelligence has so far failed to prove. 

A handful of Gaza girls play with hula hoops. In the background is a school building where laundry is hanging.
Children play at an UNRWA-run school in Gaza City where many displaced Palestinian families have sought refuge amid daily air strikes and bombardment by Israeli forces on May 19, 2021. Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images

It is no surprise that the Israeli government launched this latest attack on UNRWA, an agency it has long smeared as an arm of Hamas. It wants to eradicate UNRWA because it sustains millions of refugees who are living on Israel’s doorstep and demanding the right to return — or, in the words of the Israeli foreign minister to the UN, because UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem.” 

UNRWA says some of its employees were forced to confess to taking part in the attacks.

The Israeli government claims that a dozen UNRWA employees played a role in Hamas’ October 7 attacks. Once Israel officially announced the accusations on January 26, countries such as the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom rushed to suspend their funds to UNRWA. These countries didn’t stop their arms to Israel, however, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on the same day that Israel is plausibly engaging in genocide in the Gaza Strip. 

The way these countries jumped to cut UNRWA aid, even before investigating the Israeli government’s claims, suggest that they did so under Israeli pressure. According to news outlets that obtained copies of an Israeli intelligence dossier shared with donor nations, the dossier contained no evidence, only allegations. UNRWA says some of its employees were forced to confess to taking part in the attacks. A UN investigation has released no findings yet.

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Even if the Israeli intelligence claims are proven to be true, this should in no way justify defunding UNRWA. No country with a sound foreign policy would cut aid from a people who are starving to death. Instead, UNRWA should be allowed to proceed according to its own policy on neutrality, which bans political membership. And similarly, if the ICJ finds that Israel is committing genocide, Western countries should proceed according to international law, under which they are obliged to prevent genocide and punish those who commit it.

Israel has been lobbying for years to dismantle the agency and has targeted it during the attacks on Gaza.

For Palestinians, attacks against UNRWA are not new. Israel has been lobbying for years to dismantle the agency and has targeted it during the attacks on Gaza. Israel ordered UNRWA employees to move to the south of Gaza when it issued a one-day evacuation order, instead of letting the agency remain to provide much-needed aid. Despite UN statutes protecting UN facilities and workers, Israel has killed 168 UNRWA staff, damaged 157 UNRWA facilities — many of them schools converted to shelters — and destroyed the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City. In February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed the Israel Defense Forces to begin replacing UNRWA with another international aid organization or a local one.

A biker bikes past a wall that has been partially torn away. Rubble is mounded at its based.
A Palestinian bikes past the destroyed UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, Gaza on February 21, 2024. Photo by Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu via Getty Images

Why the focus on UNRWA? Part of the current attack on UNRWA is related to the larger attack on Palestinian education. Israeli forces have destroyed all Gaza universities and killed hundreds of its educators. UNRWA runs 183 schools and employs 9,443 teachers in Gaza, educating 291,000 students. Without Gaza’s schools and universities, the Israeli government seeks to plant a new narrative and erase any possibility of objection to its rule in Gaza.

A classroom of two dozen girls chatter and gesture. Behind them are colorful posters of kids reading.
Students attend the second day of school on August 27, 2023 in a UNRWA school in Gaza City, Gaza. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

But more importantly, the Israeli government wants to erase the question of Palestinian refugees. The destruction of Gaza, which hosts eight refugee camps, is part of this. 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are refugees, and Israel does not feel comfortable with their presence very close to its borders. 

1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are refugees, and Israel does not feel comfortable with their presence very close to its borders. Some of them can see what used to be their towns and villages across the border.

A good number of these refugees come from towns and villages in the Gaza envelope that now lie within Israel. Some of them, in fact, can see what used to be their towns and villages across the border.

UNRWA operates in these refugee camps and many of its staff live in them. The Israeli government has always seen the densely populated refugee camps as a threat, and it has targeted them countless times, starting with the Rafah and Khan Younis massacres of 1956. In 1969, Israel failed to implement a secret plan to send 60,000 people out of Gaza to Paraguay. Now, the Israeli government is intentionally destroying Gaza to make it unlivable for these refugees in an attempt to push them out. 

A line of children hold above their heads circular flower garlands with text in Arabic written inside.
Palestinian children in Rafah refugee camp hold flower garlands with the name of their family's old towns during a rally on May 15, 2006 ahead of the 58th anniversary of the Nakba Day, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948. Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images

Allowing the United States to build a floating seaport off the coast of Gaza and allowing France, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to airdrop aid are part of the same Israeli government plan: getting rid of UNRWA, which oversees aid delivery. Instead of airdrops, some of which killed starving Palestinians, Israel could simply allow thousands of aid trucks to pass through the Egyptian border.

The whole point of the sea corridor is to create an alternative to UNRWA; it is the U.S. actualizing Netanyahu’s plan.
A large truck with Arabic writing across it sits parked, with the driver sitting in front of it.
Trucks with aid destined for the Gaza Strip wait in long lines in to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing on December 5, 2023 in Arish, Egypt. Photo by Ali Moustafa/Getty Images

The seaport will be constructed in the middle area of Gaza, where UNRWA no longer operates and Israel will not allow it to.

It is the responsibility of free people around the world to keep UNRWA functioning as long as the situation of Palestinian refugees, the most important issue for the Palestinian people, is not resolved. Countries that pledged more aid to UNRWA, such as Ireland, or restored it, like Canada, should be recognized. Countries that continue to withhold UNRWA funds, like the United States, should change their policy, because they are preventing much-needed aid from reaching the Palestinian people who are subjected to genocide in Gaza. Last, the UN should move to include UNRWA’s funding in its own budget to erase pressure by donor nations.

Palestinians like me, too, want to see an end to UNRWA, but only after the issue of Palestinian refugees is resolved according to international law and UN resolutions, and not before that. Dismantling the agency will not make us forget who we are and how we ended up in refugee camps in Gaza in 1948, just as Ahmad Alhaaj, who lived his entire life as a refugee in a rental house and participated in the 2018 Great March of Return, never forgot.

In the foreground is a child's hand holding a large, rusty key; behind it, slightly blurrt, his eyes look at the camera. He wears bright red festive clothing and scarf.
Palestinian Mohammed Hawajri holds the key to his family's old home in the town of Aljmama, from which they were expelled in 1948. Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images
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Yousef Aljamal holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies. He is a Palestinian refugee from Gaza and is a senior non-resident scholar at the Hashim Sani Center for Palestine Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He has contributed to a number of books on Palestine, including Gaza Writes Back and Light in Gaza.

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