Israel accuses UNRWA employees of involvement in Hamas massacre. Funding is now frozen. And now?

A black and white photograph shows people in front of a wooden shed with the inscription

It's been there a long time: a UNRWA food bank in the Gaza Strip, 1954 Photo: Foto12/afp

What exactly are the accusations?

Among other things, Israel submitted an intelligence dossier to the United States. The American media that received the file reported that twelve UNRWA employees had been involved in the October 7 massacre. Two are said to have helped kidnap Israelis and two others were at sites where civilians were shot. Others are said to have acquired weapons. About 10 percent of UNRWA's approximately 13,000 employees in Gaza are also said to have connections to militant groups.

But doesn't Israel verify UNRWA personnel lists?

UNRWA (the acronym stands for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) periodically submits the names to Israel. But now the Israeli military claims to have found a computer in Gaza with a directory of Hamas members. The directory was compared with the list of employees. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini responded by launching an investigation. Without waiting for the result, the accused were already released.

How is this investigation going?

It is carried out not by UNRWA itself, but by the UN Internal Oversight Office, which reports to UN chief António Guterres. The EU has also requested that UNRWA accept a review by EU-appointed experts. They should review UNRWA's internal control systems. However, on-site investigations are almost impossible because Gaza is in ruins.

Currently, 17 countries have suspended their payments to UNRWA. Is this the end of aid organizing?

No. The mandate extends until the summer of 2026. The question is whether there really will be more money flowing in the future. According to development economist Markus Loewe, UNRWA will initially be able to continue working for a few weeks, but soon the supply of water and food will no longer be guaranteed and UNRWA will no longer be able to pay salaries. In the Gaza Strip, the humanitarian catastrophe would worsen even further. The population there is completely dependent on aid, most of which comes from UNRWA.

Where else is UNRWA active?

UNRWA is one of the most important United Nations organizations in the Arab region. It offers services to Palestinian refugees that the state offers elsewhere. The areas of operation are Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. In Lebanon, for example, Lebanese children go to public schools, while Palestinian refugee children go to UNRWA schools. In addition, UNRWA provides health care and social and relief services, especially in the region's more than 50 refugee situations, which have long been slums.

Why does UNRWA exist?

The aid organization was founded in 1949, shortly after the founding of the State of Israel, by a resolution of the UN General Assembly. Since then, the mandate has been periodically expanded as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved. UNRWA emphasizes that it does not have the mandate to resolve the conflict or to work for the integration of refugees in other countries. That's right, because the organization has been contracted to provide services until the conflict is resolved.

Has there been criticism of UNRWA for a long time?

The debate over school textbooks has attracted a lot of attention for years. UNRWA's approximately 700 schools use textbooks from the respective host country; the organization does not create its own study plans. More recently, a report by the Israeli NGO Impact-se, which examines the content of school textbooks, suggested that anti-Semitic messages and calls for violence against Israelis were conveyed not only in official school textbooks, but also in additional UNRWA materials. UNRWA stated that the additional material cited was not authorized by UNRWA. Impact-se was received from websites and platforms that were not part of UNRWA. In addition to the textbook debate, Israel has repeatedly raised accusations that UNRWA schools in Gaza served as weapons depots. UNRWA also acknowledged having found weapons and condemned their presence. Weapons are prohibited on campus, but UNRWA cannot afford to have guards in its schools. However, there are routine inspections.

Why is the refugee issue so central?

In the absence of a Palestinian state, UNRWA is something of a symbol for many. Therefore, its very existence has a political dimension that the Israeli government does not like. UNRWA is the institutional anchor of the refugee narrative held by the Palestinian side, based on the historical fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled in 1948. One specific criticism of UNRWA is that it inflates the number of refugees and therefore perpetuates the conflict between Israel and Palestine. There are currently 5.9 million people registered with UNRWA and the number is increasing. For UNRWA, descendants of people who were displaced are also considered refugees.

Is the legacy of refugee status unique?

Critics of UNRWA say yes, but that is not true. UNHCR – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – also knows how to include the descendants of refugees. UNRWA refers to other “protracted refugee situations”, for example in the context of Afghanistan or Somalia. He maintains that the real problem is not his definition of a refugee, but the unresolved conflict. There are still differences with other refugee aid organizations: for example, Palestinian refugees do not lose their status if they adopt another nationality, which would reduce the number since many Palestinians in Jordan are also citizens. Syria and Lebanon, on the other hand, refuse to naturalize Palestinians.

Why is the number of refugees so explosive?

The figure becomes explosive because Resolution 194 of the UN General Assembly of 1948 speaks of a right of return (or compensation). Anyone who is registered with UNRWA, at least according to one interpretation, can return. However, a real influx of millions of Palestinians into modern-day Israel would be unlikely even if the conflict were resolved. Palestine would continue to be a place of longing for many. In any case, a massive influx would hardly be feasible without questioning Israel as a Jewish state. Therefore, some go so far as to brand adherence to the right of return as anti-Semitic, since an influx of Palestinians would result in an Arab majority of the population.

What could UNRWA reform look like?

Some adjustments could be made: for example, stricter controls, better monitoring of employees or more transparency of money flows. More fundamental would be a new definition of a refugee, on which the aid organization would base its work.

Does Israel want to reform or abolish UNRWA?

Israel has long voted against extending the mandate in the UN General Assembly, just as the governments of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have long been in favor of ending UNRWA. On Wednesday he reinforced this demand: “It is time for the international community and the United Nations to understand that the mission of UNRWA must end.” Security circles in Israel often see this differently. An Israeli official, who preferred to remain anonymous, said Times of Israel, that ending UNRWA's work in Gaza could “bring about a humanitarian catastrophe” that would force Israel to end the war. Given the lack of alternatives, there are also fears of further radicalization. In Lebanon, observers also warn of increased militancy if services are lost in already tense refugee camps.

And how could UNRWA even be dissolved?

The UN General Assembly could no longer renew the mandate, which it must do every three years. But that is unlikely. Israeli journalist Adi Schwartz suggests a different approach. He maintains that only a handful of countries – including the United States and Germany – voluntarily contribute a significant portion of UNRWA's budget. “If these countries decide unilaterally to stop funding, UNRWA will cease to exist.” In the event of a dissolution, at least some of the Palestinian refugees would automatically be entitled to UNHCR protection. Still, the question remains what would happen to people currently registered with UNRWA; for example, the more than half a million children who attend UNRWA schools. Schwartz doesn't see this as a problem. In Gaza, he maintains, Hamas would finally have to take responsibility for the population.

How do you actually pronounce UNRWA?

Very simple in two syllables: Un-rua. UNRWA says no one.