UNRWA, a crucial UN agency for Gaza relief, faces a diplomatic storm

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Few international assistance organizations are still able to function in Gaza, a strip of territory quickly turning into a wasteland. Chief among them is the United Nations.

Founded in 1949, the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, also known as UNRWA, provides care for the 700,000 Palestinians who were compelled to leave their homes when the state of Israel was established. UNRWA operates in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

The chairman of the organization warns that the life-saving aid that two million Gazans depend on may soon come to an end due to financial suspensions by various Western governments due to claims that some UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attacks against Israel.

Though it does much more than that, the mission now manages shelters for the displaced and distributes the limited relief that Israel permits. Due to its apparently never-ending cycles of warfare, siege, and poverty, Gaza has severely lacked essential infrastructure and everyday necessities, which UNRWA supplies.

In addition to managing around 300 primary schools and teacher training centers, it also publishes the textbooks used by the younger Palestinian generation. It employs almost 13,000 people in Gaza alone. It has been essential to humanitarian efforts in Gaza as the largest UN organization there.

Additionally, it has evolved into a political football that has been kicked by a number of parties over time. Israel criticizes it for perpetuating the Palestinians’ position as refugees and fostering their unwavering dreams of regaining the land they were driven from in 1948 or during subsequent battles.

One of the main concerns in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the fate of the refugees. A common aspiration among Palestinians is to go back to ancient Palestine, portions of which are currently in Israel. Israel disputes that assertion and has frequently criticized UNRWA’s establishment for allowing the status of refugee to be inherited.

‘Intolerance and hate’
Furthermore, the agency’s textbooks and instruction have long been criticized by Israeli administrations for, in their opinion, promoting anti-Israel sentiments.

The UNRWA allegedly encouraged “anti-Semitism, hate, intolerance and lack of neutrality” and taught students that Israel was trying to “erase Palestinian identity, steal and falsify Palestinian heritage, and erase the cultural heritage of Jerusalem” in 2022, according to an Israeli watchdog group called IMPACT-se.

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The schoolbooks contained “anti-Semitic material,” according to the European Commission, “including even incitement to violence.” The Palestinian Authority should only receive EU assistance if such propaganda is removed, as the European Parliament has consistently demanded. Previously, UNRWA has stated that reports regarding its curriculum were “inaccurate and misleading” and that many of the questioned texts were not utilized in its schools.

The UNRWA was declared “irredeemably flawed” by the Trump administration, which was a strong advocate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when it completely stopped providing financial support for the organization in 2018.

The organization is once more in danger of major problems as a number of Western governments have frozen their funding, which might have a big impact on the 5.3 million Palestinian refugees who are registered with it. Its largest donor, the US, which is among the nations making the decision, will contribute about $340 million (£268 million) in 2022. Next is Germany, which has also halted funding after sending $162 million in that year.

Israel has consistently charged UN agencies with prejudice, antisemitism, and worse. And now, a government that is coming under growing fire both domestically and internationally for the Gaza War has taken advantage of this to strengthen its case and slightly change the subject.

This is also an opportunity for Israel’s Western friends to express empathy and solidarity with their country while simultaneously applying further pressure to its leadership to halt the offensive.

White House National Security Advisor John Kirby was careful to emphasize that the infractions of a few employees “should not impugn the entire agency” despite the funding halt. The agency, he noted, has “helped save literally thousands of lives in Gaza.” They carry out significant tasks.

The foreign minister of Israel referred to UNRWA as “the civilian arm of Hamas” and stated that it should not play a part in Gaza’s reconstruction. This raises the question of what other organization would be able to rebuild a region that the UN is unwilling to take on?

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