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Is US’s Suspension of UNRWA Funding Retaliation for ICJ’s Interim Ruling?

The decision to suspend funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is deepening Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.

Displaced Palestinians queue to receive aid in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024.

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At a time of dire need for humanitarian aid in Gaza and when Palestinian refugee assistance and support are needed more than ever before, the U.S. has decided to suspend funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in response to an Israeli allegation that 12 employees — of the 13,000 people whom the agency employs in Gaza — were involved with Hamas’s October 7 attack in southern Israel. UNRWA is the body largely responsible for distributing the aid ordered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

As a Palestinian American person reading this news, these questions immediately flooded my mind in response:

Why didn’t the U.S. apply the same standard and withdraw its military aid and funding of Israeli war crimes after the World Court’s interim ruling determined the plausibility of genocide by the Israeli state?

How hypocritical is it that the Biden administration reacts to Israeli “allegations” by instantly cutting off funding to the UN aid agency, but does absolutely nothing at all after the ICJ orders Israel to abide by the Genocide Convention and stop killing Palestinians?

How much worse can the U.S.’s complicity in the Israeli atrocities and suffering of Palestinians get?

Despite the fact that the Israeli allegations were based on interrogations of Palestinian captives, who are often subjected to abuse and torture in Israeli prisons, UNRWA acted swiftly and responsibly by launching an investigation and suspending those staffers accused of wrongdoing. (Israel’s claims have not been independently verified.)

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said in an interview: “The Israeli authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7.” He added: “To protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay.”

As the war is about to enter its fourth month and nearly half a million Palestinians in Gaza face imminent risk of starvation, there is a greater need for UNRWA’s services in the Strip. The drastic measure taken by the Biden administration to cut off UNRWA’s funding is irresponsible and appalling. Cutting this funding will further deepen the humanitarian crisis and the suffering of the more than 85 percent of the population of Gaza who have been displaced from their homes and are facing acute shortages of food, water and medicine.

Could this reckless decision by the U.S. be anything but politically motivated? Can you envision a similar scenario whereby funding for other UN agencies or organizations that employ thousands of people — such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the World Food Programme — is cut off because a handful of employees are accused of wrongdoing?

Could revenge for the ICJ’s interim ruling against Israel be the real motive behind the demonization of UNRWA and collective punishment of Palestinians by defunding an agency that employs nearly 33,000 workers and delivers critical aid to Palestinian refugees?

For decades, UNRWA has been a thorn in Israel’s side, and Israel has worked ferociously to dismantle the UN agency. Israel never hid its intentions to abolish UNRWA, and it is now using the allegations of misconduct by a handful of employees as a pretext in order to criminalize the aid agency and bring an end to the vital work it performs in caring for the welfare and education of Palestinian refugees.

Could revenge for the ICJ’s interim ruling against Israel be the real motive behind … defunding an agency that employs nearly 33,000 workers and delivers critical aid to Palestinian refugees?

It’s hard to believe it was a coincidence that the U.S. State Department’s announcement to pause funding for UNRWA came on the same day and only hours after the International Court of Justice — the UN’s top legal arm — determined the plausibility of Israeli genocidal acts in the case that South Africa brought against Israel, in which the Israeli state was ordered to “take all measures within its power” to avoid civilian deaths in Gaza, to prevent “acts of genocide,” and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The former colonizing nations of the Global West — the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Finland, which have supported Israel militarily and diplomatically and are complicit in Israel’s genocide — quickly followed the U.S. decision by suspending their funding to UNRWA. Together with the U.S., they are flexing their muscles and showing the world that they stand squarely behind Israel regardless of what the World Court ruling says. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together.

These countries’ collective decision to suspend humanitarian funding may not be a surprise given their ongoing complicity with Israel’s violence, but it is nevertheless a disgrace that instead of putting pressure on Israel to abide by the ICJ’s interim ruling and expedite humanitarian aid into Gaza, these so-called Western democracies — which are largely responsible for the Nakba and the ongoing plight and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people — are contributing to the imminent starvation of the 2 million displaced Palestinians in Gaza who are experiencing the worst humanitarian nightmare imaginable.

“Famine Was Imminent. Famine Is Now Inevitable.”

On Sunday, in a comment following the news of defunding UNRWA, Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said, “The day after [the ICJ] concluded that Israel is plausibly committing genocide in Gaza, some states decided to defund UNRWA for the alleged actions of a small number of employees. This collectively punishes +2.2 million Palestinians. Famine was imminent. Famine is now inevitable.”

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, warned in a post on X that countries that have decided to suspend UNRWA funding are “collectively punishing millions of Palestinians at the most critical time, and most likely violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention.” This action “overtly defies” the interim ruling of the ICJ that requires allowing more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

In a statement on Saturday, UN Secretary General António Guterres pleaded with governments to restore their funding to UNRWA. “I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz praised the U.S. government for its decision to stop its funding and expressed Israel’s determination to garner global support to end UNRWA’s activities in Gaza. He said on X: “We’ve been warning for years: @UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza.” He added that “UNRWA is not the solution — many of its employees are Hamas affiliates with murderous ideologies, aiding in terror activities and preserving its authority.”

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant echoed the foreign minister’s words and welcomed the suspension of UNRWA funding by writing on X that “Terrorism under the guise of humanitarian work is a disgrace to the UN and the principles it claims to represent.”

One cannot underestimate the important work and aid that UNRWA provides to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees — from food and housing, to education, welfare and medical care. Since the establishment of the Israeli state and the forced expulsion and displacement of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, UNRWA has provided critical aid and indispensable services not only to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, but also to Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, as well as in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Amid Israel’s intense bombardment of the Gaza Strip that has so far killed more than 26,422 Palestinians and wounded at least 65,000 others since October 7, UNRWA facilities became the places displaced Palestinians ran to for safety and used as shelter during the air strikes.

Defunding UNRWA Contributes to the Cultural Genocide of Palestinians

With an annual budget of over $1 billion, UNRWA operates over 700 schools — nearly 300 of them in Gaza, where more than a quarter of a million of Gaza’s children study — and 58 refugee camps. It runs health clinics and welfare services and devotes, to Israel’s chagrin, nearly 60 percent of its budget to educating Palestinians.

The war on UNRWA is part and parcel of Israeli ethnic cleansing and the erasure of Palestinian culture and resistance. Since the early days when UNRWA was established in 1949, Israel lobbied against operating and funding UNRWA schools in refugee camps in an effort to thwart activities that promoted Palestinian self-determination and liberation. It wanted refugees to be settled and fully integrated into their host countries in order to extinguish their hope of returning to their homes. But Israel was getting increasingly worried about how Palestinians used education as a “form of liberation” and a means to strengthen their national identity. It feared that one day it may be forced into a peace agreement that will honor the Palestinians’ right of return to their homes as called for by UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which runs counter to Zionist plans.

Some of the most brilliant Palestinian thinkers and creators graduated from or taught at UNRWA schools. Those who perished recently include poet and storyteller Refaat Alareer who wrote his now world famous poem “If I Must Die” just before he was killed in the Israeli bombardment on December 7; novelist Hiba Abu Nada, who was killed along with her son in an airstrike in Khan Yunis on October 20; artist Heba Zagout, a 39-year-old who was killed with two of her children, Adam and Mahmoud, in an Israeli airstrike; award-winning scientist Sufyan Tayeh, who held the UNESCO Chair for Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Space Sciences in Palestine, who was killed on December 2 alongside his family in an Israeli airstrike in the Al-Falouja area in the Jabalia camp; and numerous others.

The war on UNRWA is part and parcel of Israeli ethnic cleansing and the erasure of Palestinian culture and resistance.

Poet Mosab Abu Toha, whose poetry collection won the American Book Award 2023 and was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, taught English at an UNRWA school; internationally renowned painter Malak Mattar attended an UNRWA school; and so did Loay Elbasyouni, a Palestinian American engineer from Gaza who helped design the lightweight robotic helicopter for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission. In 2016, Hanan Al Hroub, who grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem and attended an UNRWA school, was announced by Pope Francis as the winner of the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize and was awarded $1 million. In 2020, the Global Teacher Prize was won by Asma Mustafa, another Palestinian English teacher in the UNRWA Halima Al Saadia Intermediate School for Girls, north of the besieged Gaza Strip. Safa’ Obeid, a teacher at the UNRWA Sweileh Preparatory Girls’ School in Jordan, was selected as the 2022 Earth Prize Educator of the Year. These are but a few of those who owe their education to UNRWA schools.

The vibrancy of Palestinian arts, literature, music and culture is a testament of Palestinian resilience and also the inspiration children receive during their study at UNRWA schools. Over the past four months, Israel has targeted and/or killed 152 UNRWA workers, 119 journalists, more than 300 doctors and health workers as well as numerous Palestinian academics, poets, painters, writers, scientists and teachers in a deliberate attempt to further a cultural genocide that deprives Palestinians of the education that have allowed them to excel in every discipline and profession.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza continue to be bombarded by Israel with U.S. weapons. Every day, they continue to die from diseases; they continue to be hungry, thirsty, houseless, and lacking in essential necessities and medical care; and they continue to suffer unbearable pain, hardship and loss. But they continue to remain resilient. With their dignity intact, they will never give up the hope of one day returning to their homes — a hope that Israel wants to destroy by obliterating UNRWA.

UNRWA’s Lazzarini said last October during the early days of Israeli bombardment: “Let me be clear: protecting civilians in times of conflict is not an aspiration or an ideal; it is an obligation and a commitment to our shared humanity. Civilians wherever they are must be protected.”

It is time for us to push our elected officials to reverse this shameful action. People in the U.S. can call the White House and elected representatives to ask that they heed the call of the UN secretary general and restore the aid agency’s funding to allow UNRWA to continue its indispensable, life-saving work.

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