UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, was plunged into crisis on 26 January when Israel accused 12 of its Gaza employees of involvement in Hamas’ deadly 7 October 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.
The toll of the Israel-Hamas conflict
Hamas’ 7 October attack into Israel left around 1,140 people dead in Israel, around two thirds of them civilians, according to Israeli officials. Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups also took around 240 hostages back to Gaza, around 136 remain in captivity.
In Gaza, more than 27,000 people have been killed – including around 17,000 women and children – and more than 65,000 have been injured since the beginning of the Israeli military campaign, according to health officials in the enclave, which is governed by Hamas.
The vast majority of Gaza’s population has been forcibly displaced and is being squeezed into a smaller and smaller section of the southern part of the enclave while facing a catastrophic humanitarian situation.
Violence by the Israeli military and settlers has also escalated in the West Bank, where at least 367 Palestinians have been killed – including 94 children – and more than 1,200 people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since 7 October.
“If there are 12 people who have misbehaved, they must be punished. And they have already been punished… and the organisation 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 organisations 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 organisation in Gaza, with some 13,000 employees – nearly all of them Palestinian – in the enclave.
Over 150 UNRWA employees have been killed since 7 October. 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.
For a broader discussion of UNRWA and other aid agencies’ roles in Gaza and the West Bank, listen to: Rethinking Humanitarianism: Is aid sustaining Palestine’s occupation?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: What impact will the funding cuts from some of UNRWA’s top donors have on the agency’s ability to provide aid in Gaza?
Takkenberg: In the immediate term, I think UNRWA has some leeway. It’s early in the year. I believe a number of large donors, including the US, will have made upfront payments at the beginning of January. So, I don’t think it will immediately impact the situation on the ground.
The reality is that the 13,000 local staff in Gaza have, because of the war, been unable to receive their salaries. They continue to work on the understanding that these will be paid at the earliest possible opportunity. A lot of in-kind aid is already in the pipeline and is coming in.
So, I don’t think it will have an immediate impact in the sense that supplies already in the pipeline won’t come in. But it will have an impact in the sense that if pledges don’t come in rapidly, UNRWA will not be able to place new purchase orders.
In the longer term, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, I do expect donors will resume their support to UNRWA – UNRWA is too important a humanitarian instrument for the international community to let it go bust. It is the only game in town in the Gaza Strip. There are other UN agencies, but they don’t have warehouses, they don’t have trucking capacity, they don’t have large workforces that can be mobilised, they don’t have the buildings UNRWA has at its disposal to use as humanitarian shelters. So UNRWA is really indispensable.
What I'm more concerned about is this sort of negative atmosphere that surrounds UNRWA and the entire humanitarian effort that will sort of affect the humanitarian space. The allegations undermine the overall credibility of the UN. It negatively affects the humanitarian space and, in that sense, it’s not just an attack on UNRWA but a broader attack on the United Nations.
The New Humanitarian: What will the impact be on the humanitarian situation in Gaza if the funding isn’t resumed?
Takkenberg: If the funding isn’t resumed, UNRWA will rapidly come to a standstill. It’s a real possibility. We’ve seen it come close a number of times, like when the Trump administration pulled funding in 2018.
It would be tragic and unbelievable if the international community, in a situation that the International Court of Justice just last Friday, characterised as a plausible case of genocide being perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza Strip – if exactly when the International Court of Justice says humanitarian aid must be provided, that donors, by cutting funding, prevent Israel from implementing that part of the ruling. The 150 or so states that are party to the 1948 Genocide Convention have an obligation to make sure they are not complicit in the commission of genocide.
The New Humanitarian: How should donor countries be reacting to these allegations? And what if they are proven to be true?
Takkenberg: The model is sort of Norway. Norway said, you know, we're very disturbed by these allegations. We know that UNRWA is doing everything in its power to assess them. We have asked UNRWA for frequent updates. But we will not suspend our assistance for the time being.
That would have been the appropriate reaction of donors, to ask UNRWA to be transparent and to be open and to ask why did you create this impression that there was something wrong, and what are you hiding from us, etcetera. That is totally legitimate. Transparency is the antidote to corruption; it’s the antidote to misinformation in all contexts.
You have an organisation that has a phenomenal track record of delivering aid for over 75 years, providing quality education, healthcare, social services, microfinance. It wins one prize after another. It is assessed in humanitarian assessments as one of the most cost-effective organisations in the world.
Because of the allegation that a handful of its employees have possibly seriously misbehaved, that whole organisation and, more seriously, the people it helps, who are undergoing genocide, have to pay the price for that?
The New Humanitarian: What are your thoughts on the timing of the allegations coming by Israel on the same day as the ICJ's ruling?
Takkenberg: The news [of the allegations] broke when the International Court of Justice issued its ruling, and there’s not a single state that, in compliance with that ruling, has cut off or has suspended military, financial, or political support for Israel.
Over the decades, Israel has developed a sort of playbook and related systems with information. In Israel, they call it the hasbara – the whole machinery to sort of influence the news and public opinion. They have developed a strategy to deal with unwelcome news.
They saw this ruling coming. Everybody, including their own lawyers, had predicted that this would not go well for Israel. So the strategy book says attack is the best defence. So who can we attack? Not the ICJ because that wouldn’t look good. So what do you do? You start criticising those who provided the information to the court on which it based its ruling and create noise around it.
The judge very carefully mentioned that the factual findings were in large part based on statements and situation reports that were made available by UNRWA and by UN OCHA, including statements by UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, statements by [OCHA head] Martin Griffiths, and others.
Even if the allegations turn out to be proven, it can well be that Israel weeks ago, or even before South Africa launched the case, already had this evidence and were just keeping it at bay, ready to be released at the appropriate time.
I don’t want to create the impression that I am on a sort of witch-hunt vis à vis Israel. I worked in the region, and I’ve been on the receiving end of many previous allegations, which I’ve rarely seen being substantiated from the Israeli side. I’ve also observed how Israel more generally conducts its attempts to defend misconduct.
The New Humanitarian: What is important to know about the broader context of the relationship between Israel and UNRWA in order to understand these allegations in the bigger picture?
Takkenberg: When UNRWA was first set up, it had little to do with Israel because it operated in the Gaza Strip, which was administered by Egypt, and the West Bank, which was under Jordanian control. So, Israel came into the picture primarily after 1967 when it occupied Gaza and the West Bank.
Already, on day three of the war in 1967, the Israeli military leadership reached out to UNRWA, which was headquartered in Beirut at the time, explicitly requesting the agency to continue its operations.
So, on the one hand, UNRWA continues to be in Gaza at the explicit request of Israel, which makes sense. Otherwise, Israel, as the occupying power, would have to care for the civilian population. Until the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Israel had a parallel civil administration in Gaza and the West Bank with schools and clinics for the non-refugee population. So, it was saving Israel a lot of money and headache to have the UN continue to provide that for the refugees.
On the other hand, the Israelis never really trusted that UNRWA was an independent, neutral, impartial, UN organisation because its workforce was largely made up of Palestinian refugees. So, it’s been a bit of a love-hate relationship throughout. I also think Israel began to discover that, whenever it needed to distract attention, UNRWA was an easy animal to attack and to undermine.
The New Humanitarian: What mechanisms does UNRWA have in place to determine whether staff are affiliated with Hamas or any other militant group?
Takkenberg: Like any other humanitarian organisation – or any organisation, for that matter – when there are vacancies, it posts those and candidates can apply. There is sort of the normal scrutiny, including reference checks and so forth. There is not in place, and it would be very difficult to establish, a specific sort of neutrality-related vetting.
UNRWA, more than any other organisation, is under such close scrutiny. I mean, this set of allegations is not the first. There is a cyclical pattern whereby these allegations come up. In response to legitimate questions from donors, UNRWA has developed the most robust neutrality framework and humanitarian neutrality education programme to educate its entire workforce of any humanitarian organisation.
UNRWA does everything in its power – and is even acknowledged by oversight bodies like the US Government Accountability Office – to make sure that aid is not inappropriately directed, that staff do not violate neutrality, that installations are not misused. In one of the previous wars, UNRWA itself discovered parts of rockets in one of its schools that was closed for the summer. UNRWA immediately disclosed it and informed the Israelis, the UN in New York, and the media.
So, UNRWA does everything. Its international staff inspects its installations once a month. It trains its staff. It immediately initiates investigations if there are concerns. It’s a workforce of 30,000. In any humanitarian organisation that big, you will have people who don’t understand the demands of the humanitarian profession and who go overboard. But UNRWA’s systems are very robust.
The New Humanitarian: Where do you see this going in the longer term in terms of the fallout and the impact?
Takkenberg: When Trump pulled out US funding in 2018 – which was roughly one third of UNRWA’s operational budget – everybody thought, you know, this would be the end of UNRWA. And yet, other governments stepped up to the plate and made up the difference. And that shows how important an organisation like UNRWA is for the wider international community, including particularly the West and supporters of Israel.
If you could dismantle UNRWA in its current configuration somehow, Israel and its supporters don’t want kids in Gaza to go into Hamas-run schools. So another international agency would have to take over, and it would have the same problems as UNRWA.
As long as the occupation is not ended, as long as apartheid continues, as long as Gaza is under a blockade, as long as the dispossession and displacement continues, resistance against it will continue. And any humanitarian operation that is established to support Palestinians – any humanitarian operation in a situation where there is an independence struggle for freedom – will be confronted with resistance fighters, liberation fighters, interjecting or even penetrating it. That’s a reality.
I believe that the donors will turn around. We don’t know how long the war will continue; we don’t know when there will be a complete cessation of hostilities. At that moment, there is a dramatic increase of funding that will be necessary even beyond what donors would normally give to UNRWA and the broader UN humanitarian effort.”
I’m worried that that will be jeopardised by the negative energy that has been unleashed by these allegations.
Edited by Andrew Gully.