Wednesday briefing: What you need to know about Israel’s dispute with Unrwa

<span>People walk past the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on February 15, 2024</span><span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
People walk past the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on February 15, 2024Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Good morning. In January, Israel set out allegations that were seismic for the United Nations’ relief work in Gaza: staff working for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (Unrwa), it alleged, had taken part in the 7 October attacks by Hamas. Almost two months later, with funding for the agency paused by international donors including the UK and US, UN investigators are yet to receive evidence of Israel’s claims – and relations between the two sides are at an all-time low.

Yesterday, the Guardian’s Jason Burke reported a new story that sheds new light on the degree of antagonism. He revealed internal UN documents that allege a systematic campaign of obstruction and harassment by the Israeli military. A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces said that it could not verify the claims. “We are not trying to harass them,” they said. “There is nothing we intentionally do to disturb their important work.”

But others see the two situations as inescapably linked. Today’s newsletter, with Jason Burke, explains the claims against Unrwa, the impact on ordinary Palestinians, and how the West Bank allegations relate to the wider crisis. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Cost of living | The rate of inflation in the UK dropped to 3.4% in February, figures just published by the Office for National Statistics show. That is the lowest rate in the Consumer Price Index for almost two-and-a-half years. Last month, UK inflation was 4%, down from a peak of 11.1% in October 2022. Head to the business live blog for the latest.

  2. Wellbeing | Young people are becoming less happy than older generations as they suffer “the equivalent of a midlife crisis”, global research has revealed, as America’s top doctor warned that “young people are really struggling”. Dr Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, told the Guardian that social media was partly responsible and called for urgent regulation.

  3. Art | Three Damien Hirst sculptures made by preserving animals in formaldehyde were dated by his company to the 1990s even though they were made in 2017, an investigation by the Guardian has found. The trio of works were also artificially aged, sources said. Lawyers for Hirst said that this was part of his “artistic process” and denied that dates in the works’ titles were intended to indicate their age.

  4. Monarchy | An investigation has reportedly been launched at a hospital where the Princess of Wales was treated over claims staff there tried to access her private medical records. At least one member of staff tried to access Kate’s notes while she was a patient at private hospital the London Clinic in January.

  5. Smoking | Powers to issue £100 on-the-spot fines are to be handed to council officers enforcing a landmark law banning future generations from smoking, which Rishi Sunak says will “save thousands of lives and billions of pounds”. The prime minister’s plan will raise the legal age of smoking every year by a year across the UK so that eventually no one will be able to buy tobacco.

In depth: ‘Unrwa is the only actor that can provide anywhere near the support Gaza needs’

The hundreds of claims in the UN documents reviewed by the Guardian present a bleak picture of Unrwa’s ability to do its work in the West Bank.

They range from allegations of UN staff being beaten and blindfolded by Israeli soldiers to an incident in which an Unrwa health centre was allegedly commandeered by Israeli security forces so they could fire on suspected militants. Six Palestinians, including a 14-year-old, died during that raid. The documents are also heavily critical of how militants fighting the Israelis from the camps are putting civilians and UN staff at risk.

“The Israeli officials I spoke to clearly draw a line between Unrwa in Gaza and in the West Bank,” Jason Burke said. “They were sincere about viewing the work in the West Bank as important. But at the same time, you clearly have others in Israel who take a very different attitude to Unrwa as an institution overall. Some politicians do not make the same distinction.”


What Unrwa does

Unrwa was founded in 1949 to provide healthcare, food, and education to Palestinian refugees. Today, it continues to hold many of the functions that might normally be the preserve of a state, with 5.9 million refugees relying on its services. It employs about 30,000 Palestinians, 13,000 of them – mostly teachers – in Gaza, and was pledged $1.17bn in funding by governments in 2022, with the biggest single donor being the US.

Since 7 October, its role has only grown more critical in Gaza. About 1.7 million Palestinians are sheltering in and around Unrwa buildings, and almost the entire population draws on Unrwa aid in some shape or form.

“Unrwa is the only actor with sufficient scale to provide anywhere near the support that the population in Gaza needs,” Jason said. He spoke yesterday to Unrwa’s chief, Philippe Lazzarini, who gave the example of the aid being sent to Gaza by maritime corridor: “He pointed out that food is going into Unrwa warehouses, for distribution by Unrwa staff. Without that infrastructure, it would be much harder to get it to people who need it.”


Israel’s claims

While Israel has long been hostile to Unrwa, the claims against the agency since 7 October have been particularly serious. “It’s very difficult to think of another instance where a major UN agency with decades of work behind it has come under so much pressure,” Jason said.

In January, the Israeli authorities claimed they had evidence that 12 Unrwa employees, seven of them teachers, had taken part in the Hamas-led attack that killed more than 1,100 Israelis. It was also claimed that 1,468 of its employees – about 11% – were “active members” of Hamas or another militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The evidence cited in Israel’s dossier included text messages, intercepted calls, and mobile phone data said to establish the 12 staffers’ movements during the attacks. In early February, Unrwa fired nine staffers accused of being involved in the attacks, saying that it had done so in advance of any investigation because “the ability of the entire agency to continue to operate and deliver critical humanitarian assistance was at stake”.

This was not a “bad apples” problem, Israel said: its dossier claimed that a higher proportion of Unrwa’s male employees were linked to Hamas than among the population at large. Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Unrwa is “perforated with Hamas”.

That is the basis of Israel’s argument that Unrwa should not be reformed, but disbanded – in line with its longstanding stance. The claims led more than a dozen donor countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Germany, to pause their funding of the agency.


Doubts over the evidence

Two investigations are under way – one internal UN probe, the other an independent review requested by Unrwa and led by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna.

But as the weeks have passed, the reliability of Israel’s allegations has been called into question. “Unrwa say they’ve barely received any evidence, and that they have seen some confessions that appear to have been obtained under duress in Israeli detention,” Jason said.

Israel has refused to cooperate with the UN and has provided none of its evidence despite a fact-finding mission by investigators, the Daily Telegraph reported. And a US intelligence assessment reportedly found with “low confidence” that a handful of staff had participated in the attack but cast doubt on claims of wider collaboration between Hamas and Unrwa.

Canada this month reinstated its funding after Ottawa received the UN’s interim report. Australia, Sweden, and the EU have taken the same action.


The situation in the West Bank

Israel claims that it has a “good relationship” with Unrwa within the West Bank, and that it respects its freedom to provide services to Palestinian civilians there. But an Unrwa spokesperson, Juliette Touma, says that the claims in the documents seen by the Guardian are “part of a wider pattern of harassment” in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The stories compiled by Unrwa officials range from verbal abuse and obstruction to a case in which Israeli soldiers forced Unrwa staffers in a marked UN vehicle out of their car before blindfolding them, handcuffing them with cable ties, and beating them. In another incident, Israeli security forces targeting militants in al-Faara refugee camp broke into an Unrwa health centre, removed its UN flag, and fired from within the building.

While the situation in the West Bank is theoretically unrelated to the one in Gaza, such reports have increased significantly since 7 October. Last month, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said: “The West Bank is boiling … if now the UN agency for Palestinian refugees has to stop supporting the Palestinian people in the West Bank, we could be on the eve of a greater explosion.”


Where Unrwa now stands

There is now growing pressure on the US, UK and others to restore Unrwa funding – but there may be no resolution until the publication of the final reports on Israels’ claims. The key question is likely to be not whether a number of Palestinian staffers were involved with the attack, but whether any evidence is produced to back the claim that the agency is collaborating with Hamas more broadly.

“Lazzarini told me that the money from the US is the backbone of their staffing operation,” Jason said. “So if the money isn’t restored it’s a very big problem.”

In the meantime, the situation for Palestinians relying on Unrwa’s aid remains dire, with the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization warning this week that northern Gaza is now on the brink of famine, and only about a third of the 500 trucks of aid needed a day crossing into the territory. There have been 168 Unrwa employees killed since the conflict began, and Lazzarini said on Monday that he had been denied access to Gaza by the Israeli authorities, a claim Israel denies. Last week, a food distribution centre in Rafah run by Unrwa was hit by an Israeli airstrike.

There is little reason to think that Unrwa’s role will become less important. “People talk about the day after – but I don’t know if there is going to be a day after soon,” Jason said. “You may see a protracted humanitarian crisis, with tenuous ceasefires that are broken, and improvised initiatives to meet the immediate humanitarian need and avert the worst of the famine.

“We’re at 1,200 killed by Hamas on 7 October, and 31,000 Palestinians killed by the Israeli offensive. In the future, you’re going to see an increasing number of secondary casualties in Gaza caused by hunger and disease. And that could go on for months, if not years.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Nick Bano has a fairly straightforward solution to the current housing crisis: end landlordism. It can be done, Bano argues, because it has happened before in the not so distant past. Nimo

  • Here’s an interesting piece by George Monbiot about people’s primaries: a system which promises to help voters choose the most likely progressive to defeat the Conservative candidate even if Labour and the Lib Dems won’t participate. There are vast barriers to such a system – but, Monbiot writes, “it’s a start: a small, slow revolution in a country whose people have long been deprived of their democratic rights.” Archie

  • Ashifa Kassam spoke with ethnic minorities in Portugal about the rising popularity and electoral successes of the far-right Chega party: “My ancestors had resistance flowing through their veins and so do we. We’re not going to ever allow a Chega, or an André Ventura, to annihilate us,” said one person. Nimo

  • Rachel Dixon has a sharp exploration of Britain’s long-running bread wars – why 45p is too cheap for sliced white, £5 is too much for sourdough, and what both tell us about our broken food system. Archie

  • Quinta Brunson’s series Abbott Elementary has been credited with “saving the sitcom” and even broadcast TV. Molly Fischer’s interview with the writer and comedian delves into how Brunson was able to make a time-worn genre fresh. Nimo


Women’s Champions League | Chelsea earned a commanding first-leg lead in their Champions League quarter-final with a controlled victory over Ajax in front of a record women’s football crowd in the Netherlands of 35,991, with Lauren James (above) scoring the opener and Sjoeke Nüsken scoring twice. The win is Chelsea’s fifth win in 16 days – five games into their eight in March.

Football | The proposed regulator for English football will have the power to strip bad owners of their right to run a club and to force them to sell up their ­holdings. The scope of the regulator’s abilities – and limitations – emerged as the government published the football governance bill after two years of consultation.

Rugby | World Rugby is considering reducing tackle height in the elite game as well as a global trial of 20-minute red cards as part of a radical plan to broaden the appeal of the sport. The governing body will also examine measures that could speed up the game, including a reassessment of the use of television match officials.

The front pages

“Social media blamed for surge in young people hit by ‘midlife crisis’” says the Guardian’s lead story for Wednesday. The Times has “Clinic staff ‘attempted to access Kate’s private notes” and the Daily Mail splashes on it too – “Staff at Kate’s hospital ‘tried to access her records” – as does the Daily Mirror with “Kate’s medical records security ‘breach’”. The Waleses are also on the front of the Daily Express: “Prince focuses on ‘driving forwards’ and not Kate rumours”. “Reeves: we won’t repeat mistakes of New Labour” – that’s the i, while the Daily Telegraph has “Diversity drive has backfired, warns Badenoch”. “First cyber flasher jailed” reports the Metro while the top story in the Financial Times is “Unilever to split off market-leading ice cream unit” – that includes Magnums – “and slash 7,500 jobs”.

Today in Focus

How serious are the plots against Rishi Sunak?

Recent missteps from the prime minister have added to Tory MPs’ concerns about their disastrous poll ratings. But are they ready to act against Rishi Sunak? Pippa Crerar reports

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Esteban Polanco was driving to a nearby town with his two children when he was viciously attacked by a group of 10 men who threw a molotov cocktail into his car. The 62-year-old believes the assault was in retaliation for his work as one of the Dominican Republic’s most prominent land and water defenders. He leads the Federation of Farmers Towards Progress which has, for decades, successfully challenged governments and businesses to prevent them destroying and exploiting his home in Loma de Blanco.

The group works tirelessly to ensure the land is protected for decades to come. They are now in the process of starting an agro-ecology school to teach people about food sovereignty and how to defend water, mountains, nature and biodiversity. “We cannot allow any vulnerable mountain in this country that produces water to be exploited for mining because, for us, a drop of water is worth more than an ounce of gold,” Polanco says.

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