In its January 26 decision in South Africa v. Israel, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that “the State of Israel shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” The institution best suited to provide “urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. 16 countries, including the United States and other major donors, have suspended their voluntary contributions to UNRWA. I argue that the move to suspend funding for the organization is an indirect violation of the ICJ’s decision and morally indefensible.
If the Court was concerned with the catastrophic situation of Palestinians in Gaza, and UNRWA is the major organization that provides basic services and humanitarian assistance, then the 16 countries that suspended funding are indirectly failing to provide basic services as ordered by the Court.
Israel itself will never “take immediate and effective measures” to help Palestinians as the Court ordered. Its continued assault in Gaza is doing exactly the opposite. So why couldn’t Israel use UNRWA to carry out the Court’s provisional measure?
Publicly, Israel has castigated the Agency. “It's time the international community and the UN itself understand that UNRWA’s mission has to end,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of ambassadors to the UN at his office in Jerusalem, as reported on February 1 by the Times of Israel. He was obviously upset that lawyers who represented South Africa at the ICJ cited UNRWA statements to support their case. “It [UNRWA] has to be replaced by some organization or organizations that will do the job,” he added. And it is surely no coincidence that the suspension of funding for UNRWA happened on the same day as the ICJ’s decision to call for five provisional measures for Israel “to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services.”
Some Israelis do recognize the importance of UNRWA. “On the surface, Israel is really critical of UNRWA,” Anne Irfan, a lecturer at University College London, told National Public Radio, but behind the scenes, “they see it as preferable to the alternative. UNRWA provides the services which would otherwise [be the responsibility of] Israel as the occupying power.” A high Israeli official was quoted in the Times of Israel as saying: “Israel does not push for [UNRWA’s] closure because there is no alternative.” Even the Israeli ad hoc Judge in the case, Aharon Barak, voted in favor of the Court’s specific call for Israel “to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.” (The only dissenting vote in the 16-1 decision on this provisional measure was by Judge Julia Sebutinde from Uganda, who voted against all the Court’s provisional measures.)
The suspension of funding by UNRWA’s major donors further weakens whatever hope there was to alleviate the dire conditions faced by Gazans, recognized by the Court. If Israel itself will not “take immediate and effective measures,” and UNRWA is underfunded, the Court’s injunction will not be carried out. As UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said: “If the funds continue to be suspended, we will be forced to close our activities at the end of February, not only in Gaza, but also in the entire region.” Hence, the 16 countries who have suspended their funding have acted counter to the spirit of the Court’s 16-1 decision to provide basic services to almost two million people, albeit indirectly.
UNRWA has always been a controversial agency, since its founding in 1949 by the UN General Assembly. It was created to provide relief to Palestinians suffering from the creation of Israel and the ensuing conflicts. Unlike the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which is responsible for refugees worldwide, UNRWA’s has always had a singular focus on Palestinian refugees located in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
The fact that UNRWA is mandated to deal with Palestinians only has been the cause of historic anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli biases against the organization. For example: In 2018, under President Trump, the United States suspended funding to UNRWA when at the time roughly 200,000 children were enrolled in UNRWA schools and its roughly twenty health clinics treated millions of patients. Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, recently argued on Fox News against President’s Biden’s 2021 restoring funding for UNRWA: “I sat in President Trump’s office and said: ‘We have got to stop the money to UNRWA,’” she recalled proudly.
The US may have a historically inconsistent position when it comes to funding UNRWA, but some of UNRWA’s most traditionally loyal supporters have also suspended contributions. The largest single donor to UNRWA, Germany—which has contributed nearly a billion dollars to UNRWA in the last five years—is among the 16 countries to withdraw funding. “UNRWA is not making a contribution to a peaceful solution,” Max Lucks of the Green Party said. “Not a single cent from Germany should reach teachers who glorify the terror of Hamas,” he added, as reported in the National Review.
Can the 16 countries suspending support for UNRWA be held responsible for not supporting the major organization most capable of providing basic needs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip? If countries can be held responsible for providing material support to a country committing genocide, shouldn’t they also be held responsible for not providing material support necessary for basic services and humanitarian assistance to two million people, vital for their survival?
There should be no doubt about the importance of UNRWA. Several heads of UN agencies have expressed dire concerns about the suspended funding. “Withdrawing funds from UNRWA is perilous and would lead to the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, which would have far-reaching consequences,” warned a joint statement from Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Volker Türk, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Achim Steiner of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Cindy McCain of the World Food Programme (WFP) and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organisation (WHO), as reported by Swissinfo.
Is the funding suspension valid? Israel accuses 12 UNRWA employees of taking part in the October 7 Hamas attack, in one way or another. Nine of the accused staff have been dismissed. These allegations are shocking, but to put the number 12 in perspective: UNRWA employs 13,000 people in Gaza, 30,000 in the region. The allegations concern 0.1% of the UNRWA employees in Gaza. Like Israel’s disproportionate killing of over 25,000 Palestinians and destruction of most of Gaza’s infrastructure in response to October 7, the suspension of UNRWA’s funding is disproportional and biased—what Lazzarini has called “additional collective punishment.” PassBlue has called the allegations themselves “murky.”
So, whilst negotiators are working to find a peaceful settlement to the current conflict with a suspension of fighting, and as the International Court of Justice finds “plausible” reasons to decide preliminary measures to prevent genocide, the major relief organization in the region is being undermined. And the people of Gaza, once again, are the ones who suffer.
Whether responsibility, either for providing material to support Israel’s “plausible” acts of genocide or for failing to make voluntary contributions to UNRWA to provide basic needs to Palestinians, will ever be legally punished is improbable. But there is a definite moral responsibility in both cases.
The heroic work of UNRWA should be recognized and supported. Even the US State Department, which did not wait for the results of an investigation before it “temporarily paused” additional funding, recognized that UNRWA “plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians.”
Suspending funding to an organization at the very moment it is most needed is morally indefensible. 152 UNRWA employees have lost their lives since October 7. The organization deserves continued financial support, not continued attacks and defunding. UNRWA, like the Palestinian people, deserves better.