IDF seeking to force UNRWA dissolution in Gaza, to be replaced by alternative

Israel working with other bodies in the Palestinian enclave, including the UN’s World Food Programme, to find viable replacements for the agency accused of consorting with Hamas

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

UNRWA's headquarters in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/ Times of Israel)
UNRWA's headquarters in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/ Times of Israel)

The Israel Defense Forces has decided it will work to dismantle the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and replace it with an alternative body, The Times of Israel learned on Monday.

While Israel has long argued that UNRWA should be disbanded, it previously acknowledged the agency’s key role in distributing essential relief to Gazans under the strain of a massive humanitarian crisis and refrained from taking action against it. Its position against the agency was strengthened, however, by the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza, which began with the deadly October 7 terror onslaught in southern Israel.

Since the start of the war, UNRWA has accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure, including its schools and its first responder stations. In turn, the IDF said UNRWA was, willfully or under threat, providing cover for Hamas terrorists.

As part of its plans to find alternatives to the UN agency, Israel has started working with other groups in Gaza, such as the UN World Food Programme, to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians, instead of UNRWA.

At the same time, the IDF has deployed a campaign seeking to discredit the agency in a bid to weaken its status in the Gaza Strip and potentially cause it to disband.

As part of the campaign, defense officials presented evidence in January that at least 14 UNRWA staff members participated in the October 7 massacre in southen Israel, in which some 1,200 people were slaughtered and 253 others were seized as hostages. The IDF has also accused UNRWA of employing some 450 terror operatives in Gaza, mostly Hamas members, although some have been accused of having ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

In one instance, a UNRWA school counselor from Khan Younis in southern Gaza was accused by Israel of working with his son to abduct a woman on October 7. In another instance, an employee was “described as taking part in the massacre at a kibbutz where 97 people died” — apparently Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the worst ravaged in the Hamas-led onslaught.

Last week, the IDF released audio recordings that it said incriminated two additional employees, one of whom was purportedly heard bragging about kidnapping Israeli hostages.

In addition to the allegations by defense officials, some hostages taken on October 7 who were released from Gaza during a weeklong truce in November claimed they had been held in the homes of UNRWA members.

The military also revealed in February that Hamas hid a large subterranean data center directly under the UNRWA Gaza headquarters building in Gaza City. An entrance to the stronghold was found underneath a nearby UNRWA school, although the UN agency claimed not to know about it.

The Israeli accusations led 16 countries, including the US, to pause $450 million in UNRWA funding, throwing its operations into crisis. UNRWA fired some staff members, saying it acted to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, and an independent internal UN investigation was launched.

In recent days, however, countries including Canada and Sweden have resumed funding to the agency and others are expected to follow suit.

A Palestinian man transports sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

UNRWA argues that it fills an essential role in providing relief for Gazans, especially during the current war on Hamas, underlined by recent struggles to deliver aid to parts of the Strip, which has led to ratcheted-up criticism of Israel.

UNRWA Director General Philippe Lazzarini said on Saturday that the body was “at risk of death, at risk of dismantlement” as a result of the suspended funding, and warned that it is “the only agency that delivers public services to Palestinian refugees.”

Officials from the UN, US, and elsewhere have repeatedly warned that too little aid is getting into the Strip and have urged Israel to ramp up approvals for deliveries of relief, while also pushing ahead with alternative methods, such as airdrops and a soon-to-be-opened sea corridor.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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