UN agency staff were involved in the October terror attack on Israel. Will the suspension of international aid lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip?

Juraj Bystriansky

Israel has accused the main UN agency in Gaza of involvement in the Hamas terror attack of October 7, 2023, which killed over 1,100 people. Twelve staff members of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) were alleged to have taken a direct part in the attack and to have also participated in the kidnapping of Israeli citizens to Gaza. In addition, Israeli intelligence reports indicate that, in total, up to 10% of all UNRWA staff in Gaza, i.e. approximately 1,200 out of nearly 13,000, are believed to be affiliated with Hamas and other local Islamist militant groups such as Islamic Jihad.

These serious allegations have not gone unnoticed by the international community, and in response, many of Israel’s Western allies have suspended funding to UNRWA. Among the more than a dozen countries were the largest individual donors, such as the US and Germany. The halted support represents approximately 60% of the agency’s total funding. Given that UNRWA relies almost entirely on voluntary contributions from UN member states, this may mean a significantly reduced presence or even the closure of UNRWA in the region, which will only exacerbate the existing humanitarian crisis, not only in Gaza and the West Bank. In doing so, the Authority provides assistance to four generations of Palestinian refugees, covering education, health care, camp infrastructure, social services and emergency relief not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. It is also currently the main supplier of water, food and shelter for civilians in Gaza during the fighting between Hamas and Israel. 

In addition to the impact on Palestinian civilians vitally dependent on UNRWA’s humanitarian aid, the whole situation also has international political implications.  One of the unintended side effects is the EU’s inconsistent stance on the decision to suspend funding to UNRWA. Deepening the EU’s already divided position on this conflict can further damage the Union’s reputation as a foreign policy actor promoting respect for universal norms and international law. Moreover, the West’s inability to commit to one common set of international norms undermines its legitimacy and is likely to lead to a greater rift with its Arab allies. Jordan has already warned that ending financial contributions to UNRWA amounts to collective punishment in a situation where more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza face starvation.

In response to the allegations, the UN Secretary-General announced that the Office had already dismissed all the accused staff members.  But Israel has declared that it is demanding the resignation of UNRWA leaders, as well as the replacement of the entire Gaza office with another agency. Relations between the UN and Israel, which have been strained in recent months over the organisation’s stance on Israel’s military operation in Gaza, are thus experiencing a historic slump. Paradoxically, however, the weakening of UNRWA may also harm Israel itself in the future. The worsening of the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and the possible outbreak of famine would also mean that Israel would have a much greater responsibility because, under Article 55 of the Geneva Convention, it would now be obliged to provide aid directly, given its now unquestioned status as an occupying power in Gaza. This task will be challenging to accomplish, not only because of the need for reinforced infrastructure, but also because of the possibility of reducing the already low public support for Netanyahu’s policies, as many Israelis will find any support for terrorists unacceptable.

Photo credit: European External Action Service

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