Palestinians receive flour bags distributed by UNRWA in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip Image Credit: Reuters

When planning for the Madrid Peace Conference back in 1991, US Secretary of State James Baker met with a delegation of Palestinian leaders — minus Yasser Arafat — whom he wanted punished for embracing Saddam Hussein during in the invasion of Kuwait. He made it clear that he was talking to them as Palestinians from the occupied territories and not members of Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The late negotiator Saeb Erekat was surprised, gently reminding him that all of them were ranking members of the PLO but Baker cut him short: “Please don’t say anything else. As far as I am concerned, I am not sitting with the PLO.”

He knew that they were PLO. So did everybody else in Washington but there was work to be done and the Bush Administration decided to turn a blind eye to this detail in order to move along with the Madrid Conference.

The story came to mind recently when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for shutting down the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), accusing its Palestinian staffers of links to Hamas. Punishing the entire organisation for the sake of a few — if proven correctly — would be wrong, counterproductive, and immoral.

Read more by Sami Moubayed

To date, 180 UNRWA staffers have been killed in Gaza while according to its secretary-general Philippe Lazzarini, the IDF had arrested his employees, forcing some under torture to make false concessions.

Israel claimed that 190 UNRWA staffers had provided logistic support for the 7 October attack that triggered the present war in Gaza. Twelve had participated directly in the attack and no less than 10% of employees, it claimed, were linked to Hamas. These claims triggering a knee-jerk reaction by nineteen donor states last January, including the US, UK, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands. All immediately suspended funding without waiting first to verify Israeli claims, thus depriving the organisation of around $450 million USD.

The Colonna Report

There was a glimmer of hope last week, however, when ex-French foreign minister Catherine Colonna released its independent review on 22 April, denying Israeli claims about Palestinian UNRWA staffers while saying that the organisation confirmed with “humanitarian neutrality” in its work.

The 68-year-old Colonna is a respected name in the international community, having served as French ambassador to London and permanent representative to UNESCO. She said that UNRWA had periodically provided Israeli authorities with lists of its employees for vetting, and none of them had been flagged for links to terror groups since 2011.

The Colonna Report prompted Germany to immediately announce that it was going to resume funding and cooperation with UNRWA. Other states have already taken a similar position, including Japan, Sweden, France, Spain, and Canada.

How will the US and UK respond?

All eyes are now set on the UK, which last year, funded UNRWA with £35 million. The biggest donor, however, remains the United States, which has provided anywhere between $300-400 million to UNRWA, meeting nearly 30% of its needs.

But the congressional ban on funding reached earlier this year technically expires in March 2025 and the administration of President Joe Biden does not seem in a hurry to lift it, certainly not with presidential elections around the corner next November.

This week, the White House says that it will have to see “real progress” before restoring funds.

Famine by July

The decision to revoke UNRWA funding was the most irresponsible act taken by the self-proclaimed “Free World” in light of the whopping death toll and the total collapse of hospitals and other medical services in Gaza. Deir Al Balah and Khan Yunis have been flagged as dangerously close to succumbing to famine by next July.

Rafah is presently the safest of places in Gaza, given that it has not witnessed major carpet bombing like other cities although it too is nearing disaster as Netanyahu threatens to launch a ground invasion, putting the 2.3 million residents who sought shelter there, in serious risk.

On 24 April UNRWA launched a $1.2 billion appeal for Gaza, which would be impossible to meet unless the boycotting states retract their decision. And that can only happen if they get a green light from the United States.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of the best-seller Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.