Israel's war on the UN

Israel has rejected the proposed ceasefire in Gaza, if Benjamin Netanyahu’s posturing is any indication. After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken today, he sauntered out and announced: “There is no other solution but a complete and final victory … If Hamas will survive in Gaza, it's only a question of time until the next massacre.” That “absolute victory,” the Israeli prime minister said, was just “months” away — ignoring the fact that exactly four months of punishing war that has killed over 27,000 Palestinians and displaced almost the entire population of the strip has left Hamas’ leadership almost entirely intact.

This is devastating news for both millions of surviving Gazans as well as the families of the remaining Israel hostages — more than a fifth of whom the Israel government revealed yesterday have been killed during the “operation.” It’s also a slap in the face of Blinken and his boss, Joe Biden, who are facing the prospect of both a direct regional war against Iran and a fracturing of the Democratic coalition eight months before his reelection bid against an authoritarian madman who loves and is loved by the Israeli right.

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Blinken is scrambling to save face and distance himself ever so slightly from Netanyahu, using his appearance to be seen telling Israeli officials that the “daily death toll” is “too high” and that Israel needs to allow in more humanitarian aid. “Nearly two million people have been displaced from their homes,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands are experiencing acute hunger.”

The secretary too seems to be hoping we ignore something: that he’s been saying the same thing for months, as Israeli ground forces now close in on the last refuge of Gazans, Rafah, in the southernmost part of the strip. He also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to “a concrete, time-bound and irreversible path to a Palestinian state,” ignoring the fact that Netanyahu adamantly opposes one and that there’s nowhere within de facto Israel for a Palestinian state to go.

Perhaps the most farcical moment was when Blinken insisted that the functions of the key U.N. humanitarian agency in Gaza — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA — “have to be preserved because so many lives are depending on it.” This is a very strange statement to make because the U.S. led the way in cutting off funding from UNRWA last month. And it’s a particularly rich one to make today, as it is just now being reported that the allegations behind that defunding are thin at best.

Remember last month, when Israel alleged roughly a dozen U.N. staffers in Gaza had participated in the Oct. 7 attacks? Allegations that prompted the United States, the U.K., Germany, and other major donors to suspend funding to the primary international agency on which over 2 million besieged Gazans depend for basic needs? Allegations that just happened to be made the same day the U.N.’s International Court of Justice ruled that Israel may be committing genocide in Gaza and ordered the state to take “all measures” to ensure “access to humanitarian assistance?”

Well, at least three news organizations: Britain’s Channel 4, France 24, and the Daily Beast got a hold of a six-page summary of the Israeli dossier concerning the allegations and found partly subtantiation within. “Little evidence,” the Daily Beast summarized. “Why did the donors including the U.K. withdraw funding on such flimsy unproven allegations before an investigation?” asked Channel 4 international editor Lindsey Hilsum. France 24 tagged its story “dodgy dossier” — a reference to the error-filled, partially plagiarized briefing paper Tony Blair used to justify Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Here’s the Daily Beast’s summary, with my emphasis:

The six-page dossier, a summary of a larger report, names 12 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, and describes their alleged ties to Hamas. Nine are accused of crossing the border on Oct. 7 to take part in raids on Israeli communities, including one man, a school counselor, who is accused of kidnapping a woman.

Citing “intelligence information, documents and identity cards seized during the course of the fighting,” the dossier also claims that around 190 UNRWA employees are “terrorist operatives” working for Hamas or affiliate group Palestine Islamic Jihad. It does not go into further detail on the exact nature of the alleged information, documents, or identity cards.

Those weren’t the only organizations that got a hold of the dossier, of course. Yet few of the others have noted publicly the paucity of evidence behind the explosive claims — or commented on their reliability at all. The New York Times reported some details of a dossier provided to the United States government on Jan. 28, but did not indicate where the information came from or how it might be verified. The next day, in a Tel Aviv-datelined story, the Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed “official” — country of origin unknown — who told the Murdoch paper that the dossier’s contents were based on “very sensitive signals intelligence as well as cellphone tracking data, interrogations of captured Hamas fighters and documents recovered from dead militants, among other things.”

On Jan. 30, Blinken admitted to a press conference that “we haven’t had the ability to investigate ourselves,” but that the U.S. government considered the allegations “highly, highly credible.”

Now, it seems almost inevitable that an organization so deeply woven into the fabric of Palestinian life — especially in Gaza, where UNRWA has been a lifeline to millions trying to survive the destructive, decades-long Israeli blockade — would become enmeshed in Palestinian politics. And in Gaza, which has effectively been a one-party territory since what was effectively a brief 2007 Palestinian civil war (you can read the backstory, in which the U.S. was intimately involved, here), that undoubtedly has meant ties to and overlap with Hamas.

Keep in mind that UNRWA employs something on the order of 30,000 people, at least 13,000 of whom are in Gaza. The odds that not a single one of those employees would have sympathies for or ties to the party that governs the Gaza Strip seem extremely slim. In that vein, cutting off support for an organization that Blinken himself notes is essential for the survival of millions of people because of the alleged actions of a dozen employees seems shortsighted at best and criminally callous at worst.

Yet especially given those probabilities, the lack of evidence presented for such a consequential claim is fairly startling. Israel and its defenders routinely cite the fact that UNRWA immediately fired the accused employees as proof that the allegations were on to something. But Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry, told France 24 that Israel had not shared its “full intelligence dossier” with either UNRWA or the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is carrying out the U.N.’s internal investigation. (He actually got fairly testy about it, saying: “They think that we can give them intelligence information, knowing that some of their employees work for Hamas? Are you serious? Why don’t we invite Hamas to our headquarters and have them sit at our desk and have a look at all the information we have?”)

Asked during a Channel 4 interview whether the employees were fired because of “evidence that has perhaps not yet been placed in the public domain, or merely because of the seriousness of those allegations,” an UNRWA spokesperson replied: “The latter.”

The thing to understand here is that the UN in general and UNRWA, in particular, have long been thorns in Israel’s side, and never more than during the current war. That’s ironic, given that Israel was in some ways the first country created by the United Nations — legitimized by the adopted-but-never-implemented 1947 U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine and sanctified by its 1949 admission as a U.N. member state. But since then, the U.N. has been a leading platform for condemnations of Israel, both justifiably on grounds of Israel’s repeated violations of human rights and less so as a scapegoat and pawn of international politics by other U.N. members with horrific human-rights records of their own.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was founded in 1949 to help the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees Israel forcibly displaced in the campaign of ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba. As its mandate continued to helping their millions of descendants in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, the organziation became both a necessary tool of and core symbol of Palestinian survival and nationhood in the eyes of Israeli leaders.

The New York Times stated that plainly in its article on Jan. 28:

But to [UNRWA’s] critics, including many Israelis, the agency is an obstacle to resolving the conflict. Its very existence, they say, prevents Palestinian refugees from integrating into new communities and stokes their dreams of one day returning to what is now Israel — a goal that Israel says it will never allow.

As noted above, it is surely not a coincidence that Israel levied its accusations against a U.N. organization on the same day that it was dinged by a U.N. court, and ordered to comply with a U.N.-managed humanitarian aid program. Condemnation of Israel’s operation in Gaza is reaching fever pitches at U.N. headquarters; today, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that if Israel pushes its ground invasion into Rafah — the southernmost city and last refuge of Palestinians in the strip — it would “exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.” It wasn’t for nothing that the ghouls on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board joined UNRWA and the ICJ at the hip last month, in an editorial titled “The U.N.’s War on Israel.” (Now you see what I was going for with the headline.)

Israel is also in a defensive crouch against UNWRA. They have been repeatedly condemned in the international press and on social media for attacks on UNRWA shelters and schools. South Africa’s genocide case against Israel cited the organization no fewer than 87 times. Earlier this week, UNRWA reported that a food convoy bound for northern Gaza was hit by Israeli naval gunfire, prompting new rounds of condemnation:

Thomas White, UNWRA, via X

Israel has repeatedly used intimations of UNRWA complicity with Hamas or terrorism in general in attempts to discredit and defund the organization. Israel called for UNRWA to be dismantled in 2014 and 2017, the later after UNRWA employees found a tunnel running undernearth an elementary school in the refugee camp of Maghazi. (The tunnel didn’t have any entrances into the school.)

And they have a sympathetic audience for such claims in Washington. As early as 1966, Congress had directed that “no contributions by the United States” be made to UNRWA unless the organization could guarantee it would not be used to “furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army.” (This was further amended to read “… or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”)

The U.S. Congress ordered an investigation into UNRWA’s possible terrorism ties in 2004, toward the end of the Second Intifada and at the height of the Global War on Terror. The GAO didn’t find evidence of wrongdoing, though it noted that “UNRWA staff do not ask beneficiaries if they have engaged in terrorism or are receiving guerrilla training,” because “such questions could not be verified,” and that “UNRWA staff could be endangered by asking beneficiaries such questions.

Further investigations and calls for investigations accompanied Israel’s wars in Gaza in 2008 and 2014. Donald Trump cut off funding to UNRWA in 2018, citing flawed fiscal practices. (Biden restored funding after taking office, until last month.) The European Union also temporarily cut off funding in 2021, over concerns about “hate speech and violence taught in Palestinian school textbooks and used in schools by UNRWA.”

So given all that, it’s no surprise then that Israel is, once again, fantasizing about a future without UNRWA. Haaretz reported today that Israel is pondering asking the World Food Program to step in — despite the fact that the WFP doesn’t have the infrastructure in place in Gaza to do so. (And would, I’d add, no doubt end up relying on former UNRWA employees and officials to get up to speed.)

Some Israeli officials are even talking about a “special team comprising representatives from the IDF, the Mossad, and the Foreign Ministry which will present alternative options,” including the possibility that the Israeli military “may assist in the transitional period by establishing a distribution system in the area.” Which sounds a lot like an occupying force — albeit one that, contrary to Israel’s past experiences with providing food and war in territories it occupies, would be operating within international law.

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