In its January 26 decision in South Africa v. Israel, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that “the State of Israel shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” The institution best suited to provide “urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. Sixteen countries, including the United States and other major donors, have suspended their voluntary contributions to UNRWA. I argue that suspending funding is an indirect violation of the ICJ’s decision and morally indefensible.
The sixteen countries that suspended funding are indirectly failing to provide the basic needs the ICJ ordered Israel to do. If the Court was concerned with the catastrophic situation of Palestinians in Gaza and UNRWA is the major organizations that provides basic services and humanitarian assistance, failing to fund UNRWA is indirectly failing to provide basic services as ordered by the Court.
Israel will never “take immediate and effective measures” to help Palestinians as the Court ordered. Its continued assault in Gaza is doing the exact opposite. So why couldn’t Israel use UNRWA to carry out the Court’s provisional measure?
Publicly, Israel has castigated UNRWA. “It’s time the international community and the U.N. itself understand that UNRWA’s mission has to end,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of ambassadors to the U.N. at his office in Jerusalem, as reported on February 1 by the Times of Israel. He was obviously upset that lawyers who represented South Africa at the ICJ cited UNRWA statements to support their case. “It [UNRWA] has to be replaced by some organization or organizations that will do the job,” he added. And it is surely no coincidence that the suspension of funding for UNRWA happened on the same day of the ICJ’s decision to call for five provisional measures for Israel “to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services”.
Some Israelis do recognize the importance of UNRWA. “On the surface, Israel is really critical of UNRWA,” Anne Irfan, a lecturer at University College London, told National Public Radio, but behind the scenes, “they see it as preferable to the alternative. UNRWA provides the services which would otherwise come under Israel as the occupying power.” A high Israeli official was quoted in the Times of Israel as saying: “Israel does not push for its closure because there is no alternative,” the official explained. Even the Israeli ad hoc Judge in the case, Aharon Barak, voted in favor of the Court’s specific call for Israel “to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.” (The only dissenting vote in the 16-1 decision on this provisional measure was by Judge Julia Sebutinde from Uganda, who voted against all the Court’s provisional measures.)
The suspension of major donors’ funding UNRWA further weakens whatever hope there was to alleviate the Gazans’ adverse conditions recognized by the Court. If Israel will not “take immediate and effective measures,” and UNRWA is underfunded, the Court’s injunction will not be carried out. As the head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, said: “If the funds continue to be suspended, we will be forced to close our activities at the end of February, not only in Gaza, but also in the entire region.”
Hence, the sixteen countries who have suspended funding UNRWA have acted indirectly counter to the spirit of the Court’s 16-1 decision to provide basic services to almost two million people.
UNRWA has always been a controversial agency since its founding in 1949 by the U.N. General Assembly. It was created to provide relief to Palestinians suffering from Israel’s creation and the ensuing conflicts. Unlike the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which is responsible for refugees worldwide, UNRWA’s focus has always been only on Palestinian refugees located in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
The fact that UNRWA is mandated to deal only with Palestinians has been the cause of historic anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli biases against the organization. For example: Under President Trump, in 2018 the United States suspended funding to UNRWA when at the time roughly 200,000 children were enrolled in UNRWA schools; its twenty odd health clinics treated millions of patients. Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, recently argued on Fox news against President’s Biden’s 2021 restoring funding for UNRWA: “I sat in President Trump’s office and said: ‘We have got to stop the money to UNRWA,’” she proudly recalled.
Unlike the inconsistent U.S. position, traditional UNRWA supporters have joined the United States in suspending contributions. The largest single donor to UNRWA, Germany – it has contributed nearly a billion dollars to UNRWA in the last five years – is among the 16 non-funders. “UNRWA is not making a contribution to a peaceful solution,” Max Lucks of the Green Party said. “Not a single cent from Germany should reach teachers who glorify the terror of Hamas,” he added, as reported in the National Review.
Can the sixteen countries suspending support for UNRWA be held responsible for not supporting the major organization capable of providing basic needs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip? If countries can be held responsible for providing material to a country committing genocide, why can’t countries be held responsible for not providing material needed for basic services for almost two million people to survive? Can states be held responsible for the consequences of failing to provide basic services to Palestinians through UNRWA?
There should be no doubt about the importance of UNRWA. Several heads of U.N. agencies have expressed dire concerns about the suspended funding. “Withdrawing funds from UNRWA is perilous and would lead to the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, which would have far-reaching consequences,” warned Martin Griffiths (Humanitarian Coordinator), Volker Türk (High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR), Achim Steiner (United Nations Development Programme, UNDP), Cindy McCain (World Food Programme, WFP) and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (World Health Organisation, WHO) in a joint statement reported by Swissinfo.
Is the funding suspension valid? Israel accuses 12 UNRWA employees of taking part in the October 7 Hamas attack, in one way or another. Nine of the accused staff have been dismissed. But to put the number 12 in perspective: UNRWA employs 13,000 people in Gaza, 30,000 in the region. The allegations concern 0.1% of the UNRWA employees in Gaza. Like Israel’s disproportionate killing of over 25,000 Palestinians and destruction of most of Gaza’s infrastructure in response to October 7, the suspension of UNRWA’s funding is disproportional and biased, what Lazzarini has called “additional collective punishment.” PassBlue has called the allegations “murky.”
So at the same time negotiators are working to find some peaceful settlement to the current conflict with a suspension of fighting, and the International Court of Justice finds “plausible” reasons to decide preliminary measures to prevent genocide, the major relief organization in the region is being undermined. And the people of Gaza, once again, are the ones who suffer.
Whether responsibility for providing material to Israel’s “plausibly” committing genocide or responsibility for not paying voluntary contributions to UNRWA to provide basic needs to Palestinians will ever be legally punished is improbable. But there is a definite moral responsibility in both cases.
The heroic work of UNRWA should be recognized and supported. Even the U.S. State Department, which did not wait for the results of an investigation before it “temporarily paused” additional funding, recognized that UNRWA “plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians.”
Suspending funding to an organization at the very moment it is most needed is morally indefensible. Remembering that 152 UNRWA employees have lost their lives since October 7, the organization deserves continuing funding, not continuing attacks and defunding. UNRWA, like the Palestinian people, deserves better.