UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, was plunged into crisis on Jan. 26 when Israel accused 12 of its Gaza employees of involvement in Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack into Israel, which touched off a devastating, now nearly four-month-long war.
The Israeli allegations came on the same day that the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, ruled that charges brought by South Africa accusing Israel of carrying out acts of genocide in Gaza were “plausible.” The ICJ’s ruling ordered Israel to take immediate steps to prevent civilian casualities, stop and punish incitements to genocide, and enable the provision of urgently needed humanitarian assistance in the enclave.
“In view of the timing, of the substance, and of the reliance of the ICJ ruling on UNRWA reports, I can only see the allegations as a deliberate attempt to undermine the ruling and to deflect attention away,” said Lex Takkenberg, a former UNRWA administrator who, during a 30-year career at the agency, worked as general counsel and chief ethics officer, among other roles.
“If there are 12 people who have misbehaved, they must be punished. And they have already been punished… and the organization must go on doing what it must do, what the humanitarian imperative is dictating it to do, which it has done amazingly well,” Takkenberg said.
UNRWA has fired nine of the accused employees, two have been killed, and one is still being identified. The UN has opened an investigation.
In response to the Israeli allegations, the United States, Britain, Germany, and other top donor countries suspended funding to UNRWA. In a statement, nearly two dozen aid organizations said they were “deeply concerned and outraged” by the suspension of funding while around 2.3 million people in Gaza are facing “starvation, looming famine and an outbreak of disease under Israel’s continued indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate deprivation of aid.”
UNRWA has said the funding suspension threatens the “lifesaving” humanitarian assistance it is providing in dire circumstances in Gaza. The agency is the largest aid organization in Gaza, with some 13,000 employees—nearly all of them Palestinian—in the enclave.
Over 150 UNRWA employees have been killed since Oct. 7. More than one million people who have been displaced by Israel’s military campaign are sheltering in or around 154 UNRWA shelters, where at least 360 people have been killed and 1,300 injured in attacks since the fighting began.
The New Humanitarian spoke to Takkenberg to understand the impact of the funding suspension on UNRWA’s operations and the humanitarian situation in Gaza, how donors should react to the allegation, the potential fallout from the controversy, and the broader context of relations between Israel and UNRWA.
“The issue has become bigger than an attack on UNRWA; it’s an attack on the UN,” Takkenberg said.
— Eric Reidy for The New Humanitarian, Jan. 30
Photo: Maan News Agency