Israel has alleged that some of the staff of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) were involved in Hamas’ October 7 attack. The main aid agency in Gaza fired several employees in response. But beyond the allegations of recent days, Israel has longstanding issues with UNRWA, accusing it of aiding Hamas and calling for it to be entirely dismantled.
In 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to dissolve UNRWA and merge it with the main UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. More recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz has suggested that Israel will seek to stop the UN agency from operating in post-war Gaza, saying it “will not be a part of the day after.”
“We have been warning for years,” Katz said. “UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza.”
UNRWA has repeatedly denied Israeli allegations that its aid is being diverted to Hamas, and that it teaches hatred in its schools, and has questioned “the motivation of those who make such claims, through large advocacy campaigns.” It has condemned the October 7 attack as “abhorrent.” The threat to remove UNRWA from the besieged Gaza Strip has caused UN officials and those who rely on the agency to sound the alarm.
“Israel doesn’t see UNRWA as something which is conducive to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Yuval Shany, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s faculty of law.
Israel instead views the agency as “a mechanism that perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he told CNN, “And specifically perpetuates the conflict with regards to the right to return, by designating refugees and their descendants from 1948… as refugees.”
The right of return refers to the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel, which was recognized by the 1948 UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The fate of refugees is one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Read more about Israel’s opposition to UNRWA.
Abeer Salman in Jerusalem and Mohammad Sawalhi in Gaza contributed to this report.