UNRWA workers distribute aid

United Nations workers and volunteers unload aid from a truck at a school housing displaced Palestinians in Khan Yunis on November 8, 2023.

(Photo: Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Israel Denounced for Bill to Label Lifesaving UNRWA as 'Terrorist Organization'

The head of Doctors Without Borders said that Israel's allies "must stand against this move to criminalize humanitarian assistance and ensure that UNRWA can continue its essential work."

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders on Thursday led condemnation of Israeli lawmakers' advancement of a bill designating the top United Nations relief agency in Palestine a "terrorist organization," a move critics warned would endanger the lives of Gazans who depend upon its lifesaving humanitarian aid.

Knesset lawmakers voted 42-6 in favor of the Bill to Abolish the Immunity and Privileges of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a measure introduced by Yulia Malinovsky of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. If given final approval, the bill would end UNRWA's exemptions from taxes, legal liabilities, and other regulations conferred by the 1947 United Nations Privileges and Immunities Ordinance.

A second Knesset proposal to sever all Israeli ties with UNRWA also passed a preliminary reading. If approved in subsequent readings, the bills would criminalize UNRWA and its staff under Israel's Anti-Terrorism Law.

"This would have terrible consequences as it could amount to a free license to attack UNRWA facilities and its humanitarian personnel, and would further endanger civilians seeking the protection of the U.N. agency," Doctors Without Borders International secretary general Christopher Lockyear said in a statement. "Humanitarian workers must always be protected, and civilians spared."

Lockyear called the bills an "outrageous attack on humanitarian assistance and an act of collective punishment against the Palestinian people."

"We strongly condemn the proposed designation and stand in solidarity with UNRWA, which serves as a lifeline, providing essential relief to millions of Palestinians and acting as the backbone of aid delivery to the people in Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the region," he added.

Lockyear continued:

By branding the U.N. agency created to aid Palestinian refugees as a terrorist entity, Israeli authorities would be perpetuating a narrative that vilifies and marginalizes an entire population and those who provide them with assistance.

This follows months of intimidation against UNRWA, including an attack on its offices in Jerusalem. It is the culmination of the continuous, systematic obstruction of vital humanitarian aid, including into the strip, effectively choking Gaza.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said Thursday that at least 192 of the agency's staff have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since October 7. Over 170 UNRWA facilities have been attacked by Israel and at least 450 Palestinians have been slain while seeking shelter under the U.N. flag.

"The war in Gaza has produced a blatant disregard for the mission of the United Nations, including outrageous attacks on the employees, facilities, and operations" of UNRWA, Lazzarini wrote in a New York Timesopinion piece published Thursday. "These attacks must stop and the world must act to hold the perpetrators accountable."

Responding to Israeli claims—reportedly extracted from Palestinian prisoners in an interrogation regime rife with torture and abuse—that a dozen of the more than 13,000 UNRWA workers in Gaza were involved in the October 7 attack, numerous nations including the United States cut off funding to the agency.

UNRWA fired nine employees in response to Israel's claim, even as the agency admitted there was no evidence linking the staffers to October 7. Faced with this lack of evidence, the European Union and countries including Japan, Germany, Canada, and Australia reinstated funding for UNRWA. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden in March signed a bill prohibiting American funding for UNRWA.

"Israel's allies, which are all members of the United Nations, must stand against this move to criminalize humanitarian assistance and ensure that UNRWA can continue its essential work," Lockyear stressed. "These governments must pressure Israel to stop the bloodshed and provide assistance to Gaza."

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