Israeli protesters gathered outside UNRWA's West Bank field office

Israeli protesters gathered outside the West Bank field office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East on March 20, 2024.

(Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

'Full Marks for Cynicism': Israel Pilloried for Push to Destroy UN's Gaza Aid Agency

Calling the discussions "outrageous," one former official stressed that only the United Nations General Assembly can change the agency's mandate, "not the secretary-general and certainly not a single member state."

Israel on Monday was fiercely criticized for the latest step in its long campaign to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—the largest humanitarian organization in the devastated Gaza Strip.

While continuing to wage a war that, as of Monday, has killed at least 32,845 people in the Palestinian territory and wounded another 75,392, the Israeli government late last week approached United Nations officials to push for the dismantling of UNRWA.

Under the plan, The Guardian reported Sunday, "300 to 400 UNRWA staff would initially be transferred either to another U.N. agency, such as the World Food Program (WFP), or to a new organization specially created to distribute food aid in Gaza."

Former Greek politician Yanis Varoufakissaid on social media: "The state that is intentionally starving the Palestinians is now proposing to the U.N. that it disbands the only agency able to feed some of the starving Palestinians. Full marks for cynicism."

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, declared that "attempts to sideline UNRWA must stop. UNRWA is the backbone of the humanitarian operation in Gaza. Any effort to distribute aid without them is simply doomed to fail. No other agency has the same reach, experience, or community trust needed to do the job."

The Israeli proposal—which United Nations officials reportedly took to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Saturday—comes after Israel announced last Monday that it would stop working with UNRWA, as the people of Gaza starve to death.

"It is outrageous that U.N. agencies like WFP and senior U.N. officials are engaging in discussions about dismantling UNRWA," Chris Gunness, a former agency spokesperson, told The Guardian. He stressed that the United Nations General Assembly "gives UNRWA its mandate and only the General Assembly can change it, not the secretary-general and certainly not a single member state."

UNRWA's director of external relations, Tamara Alrifai, confirmed to the newspaper that the agency "has not been systematically privy to conversations related to coordinating humanitarian aid in Gaza" and, like Griffiths, warned about the difficulty of implementing Israel's plan.

"This is no criticism of WFP, but logically if they were to start food distribution in Gaza tomorrow, they're going to use UNRWA trucks and bring food into UNRWA warehouses, and then distribute food in or around UNRWA shelters," Alrifai explained. "So they're going to need at a minimum the same infrastructure that we have, including the human resources."

Before Israel declared war in response to the October 7 Hamas-led attack, UNRWA had 13,000 staff in Gaza, and around 3,000 are still working. Alrifai noted that "it's not just food. We have seven healthcare centers now running in Gaza, we give 23,000 consultations every day, and we have administered 53,000 vaccines since the war started. So that in itself is an entire field that no other agency right now can offer."

Noting the "spread of famine and starvation" in Gaza, the International Court of Justice last Thursday directed Israel to cooperate with the United Nations to ensure delivery of "urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance." That followed a January order from the U.N.'s top court for Israel to prevent genocidal acts in the besieged enclave as the South Africa-led case proceeds.

On the same day as that initial court order, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini revealed that he would fire some employees and launch an investigation into unsubstantiated Israeli claims that a small number of agency staffers were somehow involved in the October 7 attack.

In response, multiple countries, including the United States, paused contributions to UNRWA, despite dire conditions in Gaza, with around 90% of the 2.3 million population displaced. While some nations have since resumed funding, the U.S. Congress has blocked it for a year.

Israel also claimed earlier this month that 450 UNRWA employees were members of Palestinian militant groups in Gaza. The Associated Pressreported at the time that Lazzarini said he "has never been informed" or received any proof of Israel's allegations.

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