Ten days ago, Israel began circulating accusations that 12 employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza had involvement in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on October 7. This led to a crisis of indispensable, largely western, funding for this crucial humanitarian services provider for Palestinian refugees, especially in Gaza, where a large majority are refugees from what has become southern Israel.
But this latest campaign is just part of a decades-long attack on the agency by Israel, which is itself just a subset of the broader campaign to eliminate the Palestinian refugee issue by eliminating Palestinian refugees as an internationally monitored and protected group.
On January 18, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini attended his monthly meeting with Israeli officials. He was presented with allegations that 12 of the 13,000 Palestinian employees of UNRWA in Gaza were directly linked to the October 7 attacks. The UN itself publicly revealed the claims by announcing that it had dismissed nine of the 12 accused employees (two were dead).
The news provoked a cascade of demands for UNRWA's dissolution and defunding, particularly since it broke on the same day that the International Court of Justice issued a favourable initial finding for South Africa's genocide case against Israel.
Israel added, without evidence, that 10 per cent of UNRWA’s Gaza workforce is linked to Hamas. That was likely intended to offset the obvious observation that if UNRWA could keep Hamas supporters or even members to a mere 12 out of 13,000 staffers in Gaza, that's an outstanding performance. UNRWA is not a government and it has no investigative or intelligence wing that would allow it to carefully vet thousands of workers – and it routinely shares its employment rolls with Israel.
But the useful immediate distraction is part of a larger and longer campaign that is even more insidious than it initially appears. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint Israeli anger as partly motivated by UNRWA-related testimony regarding Israeli abuses in Gaza cited in South Africa's ICJ case. But even that is a relatively minor detail in Israel's animus against UNRWA.
The real offence by the organisation, for which Israel has laboured mightily for decades to discredit and eliminate it, is that its very existence reflects the persistence of the Palestinian refugee problem and issue. This simultaneously points both backward to the past, to the origin of Israel's founding, as well as forward to the future and to the need to resolve the refugee question as a key part of any agreed-upon final status arrangement. Both are utterly unacceptable to not merely the Israeli political far-right, but deeply threatening to most Jewish Israelis.
Israel never tires of complaining that UNRWA is a unique refugee agency, dedicated to one particular people, as if that were somehow unfair to Israel. But, crucially, this is because when the agency was founded in 1949, the same year as the armistice agreements that formed Israel's de facto international borders, and Israel's membership in the UN General Assembly, the international community was well aware that for the first and only time, it played a direct role in creating a major refugee crisis that otherwise probably would never have existed.
The UN's predecessor organisation, the League of Nations, after the First World War issued a self-contradictory mandate to Britain over Palestine. As with all the other mandates, Britain was instructed to prepare the (almost entirely Arab) population for self-government and independence without altering the local society, and simultaneously repeated verbatim Britain's commitment to transform that society into a Jewish "homeland” as expressed in the earlier Balfour Declaration.
After the Second World War, the new UN itself had voted to partition Palestine between its overwhelming Arab majority and the Jewish settlers who were still less than 30 per cent of the population but were to receive 56 per cent of the territory.
In the subsequent war, between 1947-49, about 700,000-800,000 Palestinians, or 80 per cent of the Arabs in what became Israel, were displaced and forbidden to return. Thus, almost overnight, an Arab society vanished and was indeed replaced by a Jewish one. The creation of UNRWA was a clear recognition of the international community’s direct hand in this tragedy of the dispossession and displacement of one people to make way for another.
Many Israelis would regard all of that as the Palestinian national narrative at best, and Arab propaganda at worst. But not only is it true, but it is the truth as the rest of the world understood it at the time. Yet this history of dispossession as the indispensable foundational necessity for Israel is the subject of intense and systematic repression at home and suppression abroad. The mere existence of UNRWA threatens both.
In the present day, it isn't merely that seeking to deny UNRWA's relief services to the Palestinians in Gaza is part of Israel's war of vengeance, though the agency could shut down by the end of February if funding isn’t restored. Israel has long viewed the refugee issue and the "right of return" as a potent bargaining chip, one that is on par, and often paired with, Jerusalem, and a powerful form of Palestinian leverage in negotiations and international public diplomacy.
UNRWA's work requires it to carefully tally Palestinian refugees, providing accurate numbers and crucial legal status. Israel therefore sees the existence and work of UNRWA as the decisive obstacle to redefining the Palestinian refugees out of existence, and maintains that only those who themselves were physically displaced nearly 80 years ago deserve that status. Hence the astonishing spectacle that the country that created and refuses to resolve one of the world's great refugee crises blames the agency that cares for those refugees, because they are and remain refugees.
It's so simple: no refugees, no issue.
The cynical and cruel campaign against UNRWA operates at nearly every level of Israel's relentless conflict with the Palestinians: as part of the collective war in Gaza; key to suppressing historical realities and memories dangerous to Israel's self-serving national mythology (and, conversely, central to Palestinian mythologies); and crucial to eliminating a potent source of Palestinian leverage at the bargaining table and on the global stage.
The international community needs to see this charade for what it is and, while demanding reasonable reforms and accountability, redouble the commitment to the humanitarian services that UNRWA provides, what it stands for, and the role it must continue to play unless and until the displacement and dispossession of the 1940s is, at last, redressed.
Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza