CODEPINK activists at a hearing titled "UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency’s Mission and Failures.
By Meena M.
Since its establishment in 1950, UNRWA has stood as the cornerstone of Palestinian healthcare, delivering essential services such as primary care clinics for basic health needs, assistance in accessing advanced medical treatment care at hospitals, implementing nutritional aid programs, and organizing environmental health initiatives across occupied Palestinian territories and refugee camps. UNRWA’s impact is further amplified by offering education to all individuals in need. Today, a substantial 5.9 million refugees benefit from the resources offered by the organization.
In recent weeks, serious allegations against UNRWA have stirred controversy, prompting scrutiny over its operations. Israel has accused UNRWA teachers of inciting hatred towards Jews and UNRWA employees of ties to Hamas. They even went as far as to claim that twelve UNRWA members were involved in the October 7 attacks by Hamas. Let's delve into the specifics of these claims, UNRWA and the international community's responses, their implications for Palestinian refugees, as well as the claims made at the hearing in Washington DC on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
UNRWA has persistently refuted allegations of aid diversion and the promotion of hatred in its schools, as well as any involvement with Hamas. Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini swiftly responded to the accusations by terminating the employment of nine out of the twelve accused; two of them having already lost their lives in Gaza during the ongoing assaults, marking them as part of the devastating toll of 152 UNRWA employees killed by Israel since October 7th.
In reaction to these claims made by a nation accused of genocide, the international community responded by immediately suspending or pausing financial support to UNRWA during the ongoing investigation. Major contributors, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands, have temporarily halted funding, affecting UNRWA’s annual budget of almost $1.6 billion. The greatest donor to UNRWA in 2022 was the United States, with $344 million, which was followed by Germany, with approximately $202 million. The suspension of funding from these major donors poses significant challenges to UNRWA's operations amid the current fragile situation in Gaza. The financial suspension will severely hamper UNRWA's capacity to deliver humanitarian services, resulting in aid being available only until February. Without funding, Gaza will face dire consequences, including the inability to treat injuries and provide essential medical equipment. As well as no access to food, leading to starvation and further humanitarian crises.
Responding to the funding suspension, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed for reinstating financial support, emphasizing UNRWA's critical role in aiding two million civilians in Gaza. Additionally, UNRWA operates in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The delicate balance between political considerations and addressing the humanitarian crisis is evident in the international community's response. The swift and extreme response to unsubstantiated claims made against a humanitarian organization providing desperately needed aid stands in stark contrast to the continued support that Israel continues to receive despite the International Court of Justice’s ruling on their actions in Gaza.
Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur, criticized the suspension of funding for UNRWA, linking it to the recent ICJ ruling on potential genocide in Gaza by Israel. She warned that defunding UNRWA might violate the Genocide Convention and further hinder humanitarian aid delivery, posing a retaliatory risk and exacerbating tensions.
During the hearing, Mr. Brian Mast (a proud former IDF soldier) asserted that UNRWA supports Hamas, alleged the existence of tunnels beneath UNRWA buildings, and accused UNRWA of teaching anti-Semitic views to children. However, no supporting evidence was presented. It's essential to consider the broader context—UNRWA's multifaceted role in providing critical services, including employment, healthcare, and education, which plays a crucial role in the survival and well-being of Gaza's residents. The timing of the assistance embargo raises concerns, suggesting potential strategic motives for Israel and the US in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
The claim that UNRWA teachers instill hatred in Palestinian children was made repeatedly. Mr. Christopher Smith stated, “This brainwashing is child abuse that they’re taught year to year,” claiming that teachers, as well as textbooks, are responsible for the brainwashing of Palestinian children. All members of the panel failed to mention that the children in Gaza in particular have been living under complete blockade. They have been under complete Israeli military authority by air, land, and sea. It is not an unexpected outcome that children raised under an oppressive and violent occupation will naturally grow to dislike and distrust their occupiers. It is not the textbooks or teachers who teach them to love Palestine or to fight for their rights, nor is it the teachers who inform them that the occupation has been killing their people for decades. It is their traumatic experience living in the world’s largest open-air prison that has taught them that the Israeli army can invade Gaza at any time, destroying their homes and their lives. Mr. Smith mentioned a few lyrics from a song:
You’ve got to be taught hate and fear
It’s got to be drummed into your dear little ear
Before it’s too late before you’re six, seven, or eight,
To hate all the people your ancestors and relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
Although Mr. Smith expressed his opinion that Palestinians are taught to despise Israel, it is evident from videos posted by Israelis on social media that hatred is ingrained in them from a young age, ironically making the song Mr. Smith quoted wholly applicable to Israeli children rather than Palestinian children. While the discussion primarily centered on UNRWA and its defunding, there were also significant accusations made regarding the morality of the Palestinian people.
Another oft-repeated allegation was that UNRWA teachers celebrated on social media the October 7 attack that killed 1,200 Israelis. Even if proven to be true, why would a social media post made by one or two UNRWA employees reflect on all UNRWA employees and be used as an excuse to collectively punish millions of Palestinians who depend on aid for survival? Furthermore, suspending aid imposes a collective punishment on the 13,000 UNRWA employees working tirelessly to provide crucial services in the region. Government official's fail to bring up the well-documented fact that IDF soldiers and officials have been celebrating the genocide in Gaza since October 7 is extremely disturbing. While they put into question the morality of UNRWA’s teachers, they ought to look at what Israelis are taught in schools. "We're finishing off Gaza," declared Israeli pop singer Narkis, IDF soldiers sang "Death to the Arabs," and Israeli children on TV sang lines such as "Within a year we will eliminate them all."
During his speech, Mr. Cory Mills advocated for defunding UNRWA, attributing blame to several organizations, including UNRWA, for the October 7 attack. However, a thorough analysis and concrete evidence supporting this position were notably absent. He additionally raised the point that the US is in debt and should not provide millions of dollars to UNRWA, he but did not suggest that the US should stop transferring billions of dollars to Israel every year to maintain its brutal and illegal occupation. Prioritizing the defunding of UNRWA while ignoring Israel’s well-documented war crimes against Palestinians speaks to the administration’s agenda to support the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians at all costs
While a comprehensive investigation of the allegations against UNRWA is essential for accountability and transparency, these allegations do not justify withholding life-sustaining essential aid to millions of Palestinians, many of whom have been displaced multiple times due to Israeli’s 75+ years of military assaults and occupation. The international community is obligated to stand by the principles of humanitarianism and justice in all circumstances and do the utmost in addressing the horrors in Gaza. Funding UNRWA should continue to guarantee that individuals who depend on it receive immediate assistance. The voices of the Palestinian people and those who stand with them are heard. Therefore, we must continue the fight for the Palestinian people and those supporting their cause.
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