Israel lodges proposal with UN for dismantling of Palestinian relief agency

<span>Israelis protesting outside the entrance to Unrwa’s offices in Jerusalem on 20 March 2024. Israel has claimed that members of Unrwa are affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.</span><span>Photograph: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP</span>
Israelis protesting outside the entrance to Unrwa’s offices in Jerusalem on 20 March 2024. Israel has claimed that members of Unrwa are affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.Photograph: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP

Israel has given the UN a proposal to dismantle Unrwa, its relief agency in the Palestinian territories, and transfer its staff to a replacement agency to make large-scale food deliveries into Gaza, according to UN sources.

The proposal was presented late last week by the Israeli chief of the general staff, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, to UN officials in Israel, who forwarded it to the organisation’s secretary general, António Guterres, on Saturday, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Unrwa was not involved in the talks as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been refusing to deal with it since last Monday, on the basis of claims, so far unproven, of affiliations of some of the agency’s staff with Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Israel insists it is prepared to allow large amounts of aid into Gaza and that the limiting factor is UN capacity. Its decision not to cooperate with Unrwa severely affects that capacity.

Under the terms presented last week, 300 to 400 Unrwa staff would initially be transferred either to another UN agency, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), or to a new organisation specially created to distribute food aid in Gaza.

More Unrwa employees could be transferred in later stages and the agency’s assets would also be transferred. Details were vague of who would run any new agency under the scheme, or of who would provide security for its deliveries.

Unrwa, which has been supporting the Palestinian territories since 1950, has been shut out of conversations on its future existence despite being the largest humanitarian actor in the territory. “Unrwa has not been systematically privy to conversations related to coordinating humanitarian aid in Gaza,” said the organisation’s director of external relations, Tamara Alrifai.

Some UN officials see the Israeli plan as an attempt to portray the UN as unwilling to cooperate if there is famine in Gaza, which humanitarian organisations have warned is impending. On Thursday the international court of justice, which is examining genocide charges against Israel, ordered the Israeli government to take “all necessary and effective measures” to ensure the large-scale delivery of aid to Gaza “in full cooperation with the United Nations”.

Some inside the UN, other aid agencies and human rights groups also see the Israeli proposal as the culmination of a long Israeli campaign to destroy Unrwa.

“If we allow this, it is the slippery slope to us being completely managed directly by the Israelis, and the UN directly being complicit in undermining Unrwa, which is not only the biggest aid provider but also the biggest bastion of anti-extremism in Gaza,” one UN official said. “We would be playing into so many political agendas if we allowed this to happen.”

Guterres’s office and the IDF did not respond to requests for comment.

Alrifai said the small size of the proposed new aid distribution entity would hobble its ability to effectively deliver aid in Gaza at a time when the need was greatest. “This is no criticism of WFP, but logically if they were to start food distribution in Gaza tomorrow, they’re going to use Unrwa trucks and bring food into Unrwa warehouses, and then distribute food in or around Unrwa shelters,” she said.

“So they’re going to need at a minimum the same infrastructure that we have, including the human resources.”

Unrwa is by far the biggest aid organisation in Gaza, employing 13,000 staff at the time the war broke out, 3,000 of whom are still doing their jobs, as well as tens of thousands more across the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East. In addition to distributing food, the agency is a major employer in Gaza, providing teaching and essential medical services as healthcare in the enclave crumbles.

“It’s not just food. We have seven healthcare centres now running in Gaza, we give 23,000 consultations every day, and we have administered 53,000 vaccines since the war started. So that in itself is an entire field that no other agency right now can offer,” Alrifai said.

“It’s great that we’re focusing on food because of the famine, and we are raising the alarm about malnutrition, but Unrwa is so much more than food distribution.”

Israel has claimed that up to 11% of Unrwa employees are affiliated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and that as many as 30 took some part in the 7 October attack on Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed.

Israel has yet to provide evidence for the allegations, which led to the suspension of $450m in funding by 16 major donors at a time when the 2.3 million people in Gaza were sliding towards famine.

Earlier this month, the US Congress voted for a spending bill that included a clause blocking future US financing of Unrwa, but other national donors have resumed their funding in the weeks since the UN launched two inquiries. One is an investigation of the specific Israeli allegations, which reported a month ago that it was yet to receive evidence from Israel for its allegations but was hopeful about future cooperation.

The second inquiry, chaired by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna and supported by three Nordic research agencies, is a broader review of the agency’s integrity. An interim report by the Colonna inquiry on 20 March said Unrwa had a “significant number of mechanisms and procedures” to ensure its neutrality but that critical areas still needed to be addressed.

The IDF halted cooperation with Unrwa as Australia, Canada and Sweden, Finland and Japan said they would resume funding the agency. The Israeli military has sought to work with other agencies, such as the WFP, instead.

Behind the scenes at the UN, the US has supported the Israeli effort to fold Unrwa’s functions into other agencies, but diplomats in New York said that effort had so far been resisted by other donors and Guterres, who until now has given his full support to Unrwa.

“We must strive to keep the one-of-a-kind services that Unrwa provides flowing, because that keeps hope flowing,” the secretary general said on a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan last week, adding that it would be “cruel and incomprehensible” to stop Unrwa services to Palestinians.

Unrwa derives its mandate from the UN general assembly, which in theory can alone decide the agency’s fate.

Some UN aid officials argue that only Unrwa has the resources and the confidence of ordinary Palestinians to deliver food aid to Gaza, and that trying to reinvent an aid organisation for political reasons in response to Israeli demands, in the midst of bombardment and the onset of a famine, would have disastrous consequences.

“It is outrageous that UN agencies like WFP and senior UN officials are engaging in discussions about dismantling Unrwa,” said Chris Gunness, a former Unrwa spokesperson. “The general assembly gives Unrwa its mandate and only the general assembly can change it, not the secretary general and certainly not a single member state.”