Britain must fight back now against Israel’s political onslaught on UNRWA

By Andrew Whitley, Chair of Balfour Project Trustees

Often an old piece of furniture is so familiar that it’s only when it is no longer there that one realises how invaluable it was – and how much it will be missed. That is the very real prospect today facing the UN agency responsible for the Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

This is not the first time the Balfour Project has warned of threats to the existence of an agency that takes care of the basic needs of 6m Palestinians, including two thirds of all Gazans. We make no apology for doing so again. Just as Britain must bear historic responsibility for its past failures in Palestine, so it must continue to deal with the legacy of the past today. Perhaps the most painful aspect is the unresolved refugee issue.

But whereas before 7 Oct the cause for concern for UNRWA was financial, as donor funding dried up and recipients’ needs grew, the driving impulse now is deeply political. Israel is exploiting a moment of high crisis to try to realise a longstanding ambition: force the collapse of UNRWA – and, with it, extinguish the hopes of the refugees, who are trapped in limbo.

The stakes are high, and the language being used is deeply inflammatory.

At the United Nations last Monday, Israel’s Ambassador, Gilad Erdan, a provocateur, stated flatly: “In Gaza, the UN is a terror organisation itself.” He was echoing a message heard repeatedly from Bibi Netanyahu. When the war ends there will be no place in Gaza for UNRWA, the Israeli leader has asserted. If that happens, who then will distribute the enormous aid that will be required, care for the sick, and educate Gaza’s children? That part was left unsaid.

As someone who previously worked for UNRWA, in Gaza, Jerusalem and New York, I flatly reject the calumnies directed at it, especially the malicious charges that it feeds anti-Israel sentiment and aids or abets terrorism. Some of its local staff may indeed be Hamas members. Just as the British government does not interrogate its civil servants as to their private political beliefs, nor do UN organisations, anywhere in the world.

This is not to condone any reprehensible actions by its staff such as those Israel alleges took place in border kibbutzim on 7 Oct. But it is chutzpah of the highest order for Israel to smear UNRWA by association with Hamas when, for decades, it has itself systematically sought to build up Hamas as a counterweight to Fatah. Its goal, of course, was to keep the Palestinian national movement divided and prevent statehood.

All those concerned not to make the appalling situation in Palestine today even worse need to wake up to the fact that the collapse of UNRWA would be a humanitarian and political disaster. The British Government should heed the blunt warnings from Philippe Lazzarini, its Swiss head, printed in full below. And it needs to act decisively, not wait for the outcome of the two independent inquiries into UNRWA that are currently underway.

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