UNRWA: a symbol of the Palestinian right of return

(File photo: Jordan News)
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) recently released an internal report suggesting that some of its employees were pressured by Israeli authorities to falsely admit their links to Hamas and the events that occurred on October 7. اضافة اعلان

The document is said to detail "allegations of mistreatment in Israeli detention made by unidentified Palestinians, including several working for UNRWA."

According to the report, several UNRWA Palestinian staffers were detained by the Israel Occupation Forces (IOF). They cite ill-treatment and abuse, including severe physical beatings, waterboarding, and threats of harm to family members.

"Agency staff members have been subject to threats and coercion by the Israeli authorities while in detention and pressured to make false statements against the agency, including that the Agency has affiliations with Hamas and that UNRWA staff members took part in the October 7, 2023 atrocities,” said the document, according to Reuters.

The report added that Palestinian detainees more broadly described "allegations of abuse, including beatings, humiliation, threats, dog attacks, sexual violence, and deaths of detainees denied medical treatment."

Following the allegations, major donors – including the US, Germany, and the EU – froze about $450 million in funding to the agency at a time when more than  2.3 million Gazans are facing famine.

Facing the funding freeze by major donors and calls by Israeli officials for it to be dismantled, the UNRWA has been at a breaking point, according to its director-general Philippe Lazzarini. The crisis is threatening to collapse the largest aid agency in the Gaza Strip even as children have begun to die of malnutrition and dehydration due to Israel’s six-month bombardment and siege of the enclave.

“For decades, Israel has relied on UNRWA to provide services to Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories – something Israel, as the occupying power, is required to do under international law.”

Besides, since the initial allegations, Israel has put forward a series of similar, largely unsubstantiated claims aimed at linking UNRWA to Hamas.

In response, the UN has launched an internal review and an external investigation led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna.

For decades, Israel has relied on UNRWA to provide services to Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories – something Israel, as the occupying power, is required to do under international law. At the same time, Israeli politicians and pro-Israel influence groups have long accused the agency of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias and of being infiltrated by Palestinian resistance fighters.

One reason the agency is a lightning rod for controversy is that it has become a “symbol of the unresolved plight of Palestinian refugees,” according to Lex Takkenberg, a former UNRWA administrator who worked at the agency for 30 years, including as general counsel and chief ethics officer.

UNRWA was created in 1949 to provide aid, including food, healthcare, and education, to people – initially both Palestinian and Jewish – forcibly displaced from their homes during the war and violence that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

In 1952, Israel took over responsibility for providing support to around 17,000 Jews who had been forcibly displaced. The more than 700,000 displaced Palestinians remained under UNRWA’s mandate, as well as their descendants. Later, Palestinians displaced by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which led to the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, were also added to UNRWA’s mandate.

Today, around 5.9 million people are eligible for UNRWA’s services, and the agency operates in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. What was supposed to be a temporary humanitarian program has grown into a massive service provider that would be politically explosive and logistically difficult – if not impossible – to replace.

According to Jørgen Jensehaugen, a researcher focused on Palestinian-Israeli relations at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, when it comes to UNRWA, there’s one thing both Palestinians and Israelis agree on: The agency helps perpetuate the hopes of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to one day return to the lands they were forced to leave in 1948.

“Palestinians see any weakening of UNRWA as a weakening of their rights,” said Jensehaugen. “In an ideological argument, Israel just wants [UNRWA] to go away, hoping that that will undermine the whole claim of Palestinians having a right to return.”

Today, from a temporary solution to a vital service provider, UNRWA provides education, medical care, aid, and other services for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. It employs over  30,000 people  (13,000 in Gaza), the vast majority of them Palestinians.  

“The agency helps perpetuate the hopes of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to one day return to the lands they were forced to leave in 1948.”

Israeli officials and pro–Israel groups have made no secret of their desire to see UNRWA dismantled, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has clearly said, “UNRWA’s mission has to end.”

In addition to the funding suspension, the Israeli government and politicians have also taken steps to hamper UNRWA’s ability to operate by blocking shipping containers in the Israeli port of Ashdod destined for UNRWA in Gaza carrying enough flour for 1.1 million people for five months; rescinding tax exemptions UNRWA receives as a UN agency; attempting to shut down  UNRWA’S offices in occupied East Jerusalem; and limiting the duration of visas for international UNRWA staff. The agency’s Israeli bank also recently froze its account.

Israeli officials eventually allowed the flour shipment to enter Gaza on the condition that the World Food Program control the delivery, not UNRWA.

The moves have come despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, ordering Israel on 26 January to take “immediate and effective” steps to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza. The order was part of the court’s interim ruling in the case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.

Despite its perception today as a symbol of the Palestinian right of return, if UNRWA were to shut down, Israel would be legally obliged to fill the aid and service provision gap the agency would leave behind.

Israel, the occupying power, remains bound to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to the protected Palestinian population throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, including the Gaza Strip.

As UNRWA remains a significant instrument for the broader international community, it will not be allowed to collapse. It recently secured new funding from Ireland, Norway, and Spain, and Türkiye and Belgium pledged to continue funding. The EU, Sweden, and Canada plan to resume paused contributions.

However, the EU’s funding is contingent on UNRWA following through on commitments to investigate any wrongdoing and make reforms to strengthen its neutrality protocols. The European Commission, recognizing the UN's steps, recently announced it would release $54 million in UNRWA funding.

Phillipe Lazzarini, the head of the UNRWA, has said Israel provided no evidence against his former employees and warned that dismantling the UNRWA would be "short-sighted." "By doing so, we will sacrifice an entire generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment, and future conflict," he told the UN General Assembly. Besides, Lazzarini told Swiss broadcaster RTS in an interview.

“I am cautiously optimistic that within the next few weeks, and also following the publication of Catherine Colonna’s report, a number of donors will return,” he said, referring to a review by the French foreign minister to be released next month.

On its part, Israel is going on with its accusations, pushing for the UNRWA to go away and hoping that this will undermine the whole claim of Palestinians having a right to return.

Najla M. Shahwan is a Palestinian author, researcher, and freelance journalist. She has published thirteen books and a children's story collection and has received two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers.