If Israel succeeded in persuading Biden to scrap UNWRA and transfer what they do to other agencies, the UN would no longer recognise up to five million Palestinians as refugees
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
Cross-posted from Middle East Eye
It is now crystal clear what Israeli officials had in mind when they briefed the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about Hamas’ alleged infiltration of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa).
I still find it hard to understand how readily governments across the western world swallowed the bait, without any fact checking, and how, in the blink of an eye, 17 countries, accounting for just over $440m, half of the Unrwa’s operational budget, suspended funding.
On the weekend in which these countries should have been thinking about defunding Israel following the International Court of Justice verdict on provisional measures in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, all the talk was about defunding the one UN agency that is keeping Palestinians alive in Gaza.
In case anyone has forgotten, there is a war going on there.
Unrwa is currently giving shelter to over one million displaced Palestinians in Gaza in 154 sites. It’s not just the 13,000 Palestinians it employs; Unrwa is the largest relief agency operating in this war zone, a zone of unparalleled destruction.
Unrwa trucks driven by Unrwa drivers pick up the meagre supplies from the borders. They do the loading and unloading, sift through aid in their warehouses and distribute it. They supply other UN agencies.
“If Unrwa disappeared, the consequences for Gaza are going to be catastrophic,” said Juliette Touma, Unrwa’s director of communications.
And yet Unrwa ceasing operations is now a very real possibility.
“If the funding does not resume, we will not be able to continue our humanitarian work, including in Gaza, beyond the end of February. We don’t have reserves, no savings we can tap on a rainy day,” Touma added.
A growing list of fabrications
None of this came to mind when 17 countries suspended funding.
In a blinding flash, the Israeli army that has killed over 152 Unrwa staff in Gaza, turned, in their minds, into the victim of the UN agency which had been “infiltrated by Hamas”.
The international media reproduced without question the “dossier” of alleged evidence Israel distributed to journalists, a dossier which it never formally handed to Unrwa itself.
The UN agency first knew about the allegation that initially 12, then 190, then 1200 of its employees were “members of Hamas” when they read about it in the media. Unrwa regularly shares lists of its employees with Israel and with the governments of countries hosting Palestinian refugees.
Last May, it handed Israel a list of all its employees in Gaza, the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. “We never get a response, let alone an objection,” Touma explained.
Surely if Israel had been gathering intelligence about Hamas penetration of a vital UN agency with so many employees in the occupied territories, it would have signalled these concerns in 2023 or any year before that.
A host state has the opportunity to do that and yet this has never happened. Unrwa has been around for as long as the state of Israel has.
No one has paused to examine the credibility of the Israeli army’s claims, or weigh them against the growing list of known fabrications that the same army has manufactured to cover its tracks over the civilians it has killed in Gaza.
One of the more incredible Israeli claims is that soldiers found a computer on which the membership of Hamas is listed and cross-checked that with the list of staff supplied by the UN agency. As a result, they gleaned that about 10 percent of the 13,000 staff the agency had in Gaza were Hamas members.
Ask any counterinsurgency expert how Islamist movements are organised and they will tell you that no such list exists. Hamas does not have a membership list. Even in countries like Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood is officially recognised, no such lists exist of Brotherhood membership. Nor do they exist in Egypt or in any country where the Brotherhood has a political presence.
This was the problem that the former British diplomat John Jenkins faced when he wrote his report about the Muslim Brotherhood presence in Britain. He told me at the time: “The Brotherhood does not have a postal address in this country. There is nothing to seize, even if we wanted to.”
There is a reason for this: Islamist movements are organised and funded in cells whose existence are kept secret from each other.
So little reliable intelligence
This is particularly the case for a military organisation like Hamas.
The four men in Gaza who organised the 7 October attack kept the plan secret from every Hamas member outside Gaza, including deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri who was killed by the Israelis in Beirut last month.
The 7 October attack came as a surprise to everyone in the diaspora who claimed to be in contact with Hamas, which is a proscribed organisation in the UK.
Secrecy is built into every level of Hamas’s structure, which is why so little was known about the number of fighters it has, its recruitment methods, or the extent of the tunnel network. Its arsenal of tank-busting rocket-propelled grenades also came as an unpleasant surprise to the army.
So many surprises equals so little reliable intelligence.
To defend itself from criticism at home that it was not making progress in its ground campaign, the Israeli army claimed at one point it had discovered a major weapons cache in one of the tunnels. This was easy for Hamas to deny.
They don’t have weapons stores. All their firepower is distributed and carefully hidden for the basic military reason that a weapons cache of any size would be vulnerable to air strikes.
Any journalist or government parroting these Israeli claims should remember how many occasions in the last four months the Israeli army was caught fabricating evidence about what it was doing in Gaza.
The targeted killing of the journalist Hamza al-Dahdouh, the son of Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Gaza, Wael al Dahdouh, is one of many recent examples.
Hamza and his friend Mustafa Daraya had been part of a group of journalists covering the scene of an air strike. Daraya was the go-to person for getting drone shots in Gaza and his drone went up briefly to survey the scene of devastation.
A few moments later, the departing convoy of journalists was hit by two drone strikes, the second targeting a car in which Hamza and Mustafa were killed. The Israeli army claimed they had targeted “persons involved in groups actively attacking the IDF”.
Every journalist who has covered the conflict knows that journalists are the frequent target of Israeli soldiers, from the sniper who killed Shiren Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist, to at least 117 journalists killed by Israel in Gaza during this conflict.
Intelligence claims that Israel makes public cannot be taken at face value.
So why should an army with a track record of generating false news about an operation that is taking much longer than it thought be believed about a UN organisation it has wanted to abolish for many years?
Right of return
So let us get to the real reason why Israel is trying to “collapse” Unrwa.
This has nothing to do with Hamas and little to do with the current war in Gaza. For this we have to go back in time to the UN resolutions in 1947, Israel’s creation as a state in 1948 and its admission as a state in the UN.
The right of return of Palestinian refugees was first formulated by the UN Mediator for Palestine Folke Bernadotte, who pushed for it during a truce arranged in June 1948.
“It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries,” he wrote in his first general report to the secretary general in 1948.
Bernadotte, a Swede who saved thousands of Jews from going to the concentration camps, was assassinated by a Jewish underground group under the leadership of future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. But his right of return was incorporated into UN Resolution 194.
This was made a condition of Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949. Israel’s representative at the UN, Abba Eban, was asked if Israel would honour its obligations under resolution 194. Eban replied: “I can give unqualified affirmative answer to the second question as to whether we will cooperate with the organs of the United Nations with all the means at our disposal in the fulfilment of the resolution concerning refugees.”
Unrwa was established in 1949 to provide education, healthcare and social services to the 700,000 refugees created by Israel.
No Unrwa, no refugees
Today it is the only UN organisation that defines a Palestinian refugee as someone whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost their home as a result of the conflict.
If Israel succeeded in persuading US President Joe Biden to scrap Unrwa and transfer what they do to other agencies like the UNHCR or World Food Programme, the UN would no longer recognise up to five million Palestinians as refugees.
No Unrwa, no refugees. No refugees, no problem. Israel accuses Unrwa of “perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem” by allowing Palestinian refugees to transmit their refugee status to future generations.
In fact, Israel is solely, serially and repeatedly responsible for creating refugees and denying their right to return home. On Sunday 12 ministers in the current cabinet were trying hard to create more refugees.
They attended a conference calling to resettle the Gaza Strip, a chillingly public example of incitement to genocide being examined by the World Court.
One of the founders of the movement to resettle Gaza is a convicted murderer, Uzi Sharbaf, who served seven years for killing three students at the Islamic College in Hebron in 1983.
The conference was naturally attended by the “bad guys” – far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. But it was also attended by a strong showing from the Likud Party.
The conference debated the concept of “voluntary emigration” of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. No less a person that the communications minister from the Likud Party, Shlomo Karhi, explained that in war “voluntary is at times a state you impose [on someone] until they give their consent”.
The US lectures the world about a law-based world order. The World Court has ordered Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent acts of genocide and to punish acts of incitement.
This is the response of 12 ministers in the cabinet to the World Court ruling and Washington does nothing.
Instead of forcing Israel’s compliance with the World Court, a group of Jewish House Democrats discussed alternatives to Unrwa with Colonel Elad Goren, head of the civil department of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit.
Goren publicly denied that mass starvation is taking place in Gaza and claimed Israel has done its best to facilitate the flow of aid into Gaza.
As if anyone had any doubt about Israel’s intention, Netanyahu said on Wednesday that it was critical to end Unrwa’s mission.
America is being led down a path not only to regional war. It is being led down a path to destroy the lives of millions of refugees around the Arab world, an act that would at a stroke destabilise Jordan and Lebanon, as well as all the occupied territories.
It’s insane for the US to be complying with this. So far Washington has shown absolutely no signs of realising how dangerous for the world order this path is.
When future generations write the history of the collapse of the US as a world leader, it is moments like these that will go down as the seminal points in America’s decay as a major global power.