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Amid Rafah carnage, Israel moves to designate UNRWA as ‘terror organization’

By Maryam Qarehgozlou

In another attempt to discredit the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), the Israeli parliament is set to hold a preliminary vote to designate the aid agency as a “terrorist group”.

The bill, proposed by Knesset member Yulia Malinovsky, seeks to define the UN agency as a “terrorist organization” and cut all official ties, “either direct or indirect,” with it.

Israeli officials have made no secret of their desire to see UNRWA dismantled. They have overtly said they want to stop it from providing its much-needed services to millions of Palestinian refugees.

Writing on X, formerly Twitter, in late January, the Israeli regime’s foreign minister Israel Katz said his office aims to promote “a policy ensuring that UNRWA will not be a part of the day after” in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the UN aid agency’s mission “has to end.”

The recent legislative push against UNRWA comes after the top UN court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ordered Israel to halt its offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and withdraw from the besieged territory, in a case brought by South Africa saying Israel is committing genocide in the Strip.

The ICJ ruling, the third of its kind this year, came after Israel on May 6 launched its assault on Rafah, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee a city that had become a refuge to about half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population.

In the last few days, the regime has dramatically upped the ante, carrying out a series of massacres in the southernmost city of the besieged territory designated previously as “safe.”

Late on Sunday, the Israeli military carried out air strikes on a camp housing displaced Palestinians in the Tal as-Sultan near Rafah, an area designated a safe zone, causing a fire that spread rapidly, razing the encampment to the ground and burning alive nearly 50 Palestinians, many of them women and children.

Can Israel designate UN institutions as terror groups?

If the bill is approved by a preliminary vote in the Israeli regime’s parliament, it would still have to pass a first, second, and third reading before being implemented.

Nevertheless, Adnan Abu Hasna, UNRWA’s media advisor in Gaza, stated that no entity in the world has the right to declare a major UN organization as a terrorist entity.

He warned that such an action constitutes a dangerous escalation with wide-reaching and potentially devastating consequences.

Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera that UNRWA was established by a decision of the UN General Assembly and only the General Assembly can change that mandate.

“It is not a question of one UN member that has gone rogue to decide that it’s going to end the mandate of UNRWA; that’s not how it works,” Gunness said.

Why Israel wants to end UNRWA?

UNRWA was created in 1949 to provide aid, including food, healthcare, and education, to Palestinians who were forcibly and violently expelled from their land by Zionist militia groups in 1948.

At present, around 5.9 million people are eligible for UNRWA’s services, and the agency operates in Gaza, West Bank, East al-Quds, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

UNRWA has long faced misinformation and disinformation, including about its staff and operations.

The long-running push by Israel to shut UNRWA down has intensified since it launched a genocidal war on Gaza on October 7, 2023, which has so far killed more than 36,100 Palestinians.

The Israeli regime has made a series of unsubstantiated claims aimed at ending the UNRWA mission in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, which have triggered widespread reactions.

In January, just hours after the ICJ ruled that Israel was plausibly committing genocide in Gaza, Israel claimed that several UNRWA members had been involved in Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Storm on October 7, prompting many of its allies to cut funding to the UN agency.

Nearly 18 donor countries, including UNRWA’s principal donor, the United States, froze about $450 million in funding to the agency.

However, the majority of donors later resumed funding, with some even increasing their donations to the UN aid agency amid the Israeli genocidal crimes against Palestinians in the territory.  

UNRWA staff members killed

Since the war was launched on Gaza, more than 190 UNRWA staff members have been killed in the Israeli regime’s carpet bombing of the strip, according to the latest figures from the global body.

Several UNRWA premises in Gaza have been directly attacked despite the fact that the agency has provided their coordinates to the Israeli military through the UN humanitarian notification system.

According to internal UN documents, obtained by the Guardian, UN staff members working with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have been subjected to a systematic campaign of obstruction and harassment by the Israeli military and authorities since the beginning of the war on Gaza.

The document, compiled by UNRWA, recorded hundreds of incidents ranging from the blindfolding and beating of UN staff at checkpoints to the use of UN facilities by Israeli troops as firing positions during raids on refugee camps in which Palestinians were killed.

Earlier this month, UNRWA had to temporarily close its headquarters in occupied East al-Quds after an arson attack by Israeli settlers.

In mid-April, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-Generaltold UN Security Council that an “insidious campaign” by Israel is underway to end the Palestine refugee agency’s operations in Gaza.

Experts warn that if UNRWA is forced to scale back or shut down its operations, it would have major short and long-term consequences in Gaza and for Palestinian refugees throughout West Asia.

According to Jørgen Jensehaugen, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, UNRWA helps raise the hopes of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to one day return to the lands they were forced to leave in 1948.

“Israel just wants [UNRWA] to go away, hoping that that will undermine the whole claim of Palestinians having a right to return,” Jensehaugen said.

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