Israel’s latest shameful attacks on UNRWA

Helena Cobban
8 min readJan 28, 2024


Above, an UNRWA school in Gaza serving as a shelter for thousands of Palestinians displaced by Israel’s assault

Let us be clear. Israel — a country whose entire existence is the result of the Partition Plan for Palestine that the United Nations adopted in 1947 — has a long and serious record of defying U.N. resolutions. Then suddenly, on Friday, Israeli government spokesmen surfaced their accusation that 12 staff members of the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, had been involved in some way in the Hamas-led breakout into Israel on October 7.

Think about it:

  • The existence those accusations was publicized on the exact same day the International Court of Justice was scheduled to announce its interim ruling on South Africa’s accusation that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Quelle coincidence! Hey, to the governments and government lackeys of the world: Don’t look over there at The Hague; Look over here! (Presumably, though, whatever “evidence” the Israeli authorities had been basing their accusations on must have been gathered many weeks ago and may also have been shared with the UNRWA head a while ago, too.)
  • The nature of the accusations has never been revealed. All that we have been told is that they involved 12 members of an UNRWA workforce in Gaza that totals 13,000 people (of whom, by the way, more than 150 have already been killed in Israel’s bombardment.) But neither Israel nor UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini, with whom the accusations were earlier shared, has ever revealed any of the relevant details such as: what acts those staff members were accused of; what level of staff members they were; and whether they were given any chance to refute the accusations.
  • Instead, according to both Israeli officials and Lazzarini, Israel had shared the accusations — at some undisclosed earlier date — with him and his staff; and at some later date he fired the 12 accused staff members. We have heard no information from UNRWA, which is an international public body, regarding: when all that happened; what kind of an internal investigative process Lazzarini pursued, and how long it took; and what were the results of any such investigation. Hey, for all we know, the Israelis may have initially accused many more than those 12 people who lost their jobs, and UNRWA was able to refute many of those accusations? We don’t know. But doesn’t the global public that pays Lazzarini’s salary deserve to know all this?
  • So on January 26, immediately upon the Israelis revealing the existence of its accusations and of UNRWA’s firing of the 12 individuals, the U.S. government and half a dozen other “White”-country governments all decided to withhold their contributions to all of UNRWA, with immediate effect. This was kowtowing to the government of Israel of the very first order! One can only assume that all these governments were just delighted to have some Gaza-related news to react to (and to contribute to) that was not the ICJ’s very clear, anti-Israel ruling…

On this latter point, the New York Times’s reportorial team yesterday gave the following, slightly mystifying explanation:

In other words, the U.S. government, and presumably the other aid-withholding governments as well, did not even ask to see the evidence or any other details of the accusations… But they cited Lazzarini’s decision to fire the 12 people as providing all the proof they needed about the seriousness of the Israeli allegations.

I almost (but not quite) feel sorry for Lazzarini in all this. I’m guessing that the firings took place quite a while ago, and that he probably thought he had thereby successfully put the whole incident behind him. But now, suddenly, out of the blue the Israelis publicize the incident, whereupon the U.S., the U.K., and other “White” governments all start citing his earlier firings of the 12 as providing them the proof they need in order abruptly to withhold their contributions to the organization he heads?

I have a few other observations to share on this matter. Beyond, that is, the stunning readiness and speed with which the U.S. and (some) other “White” governments are ready to dance to the Israelis’ tune, upon command.

One thought is that, though this aid withholding will doubtless have some effect on UNRWA’s operations, there are almost certainly other big donors around the world who will step into the funding breach. But the issue is much more political than financial.

Another is that the latest Israeli accusations against UNRWA are part of a longstanding campaign by many rightwing Israelis to get UNRWA dismantled completely. UNRWA was established in 1949 as a specialized agency to provide relief and rehabilitation services to Palestinian refugee “in the Near East”. At that point, more than 700,000 Arab Palestinians had been ethnically cleansed from the areas of historic Palestine in which Israel had, in 1948, established its state. (Which was an area far larger than that which had been assigned to a Jewish state in the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan.)

These refugees were huddled in makeshift camps in Lebanon, Syria,Jordan (on both the East Bank and the then-Jordan-ruled West Bank of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip (then ruled by Egypt.) So those were the areas in which UNRWA provided services, with the plan that this would be a temporary, stopgap measure pending the conclusion of final peace agreements between Israel and all its neighbors, in the context of which the refugees would be able to exercise all the rights that the UN had assured them of, including the right to return to their homes and properties in peace.

That peace never came. Instead, the Israeli authorities continued to gobble up and use all the homes, farms, and properties from which the refugees had fled while refusing to make peace with any of their neighbors.

The UN Higher Commission for Refugees, a much broader — indeed global — body, was not established until 1950. When UNHCR establishes and runs a refugee camp, it generally only does so when it has an explicit mandate to protect the safety and wellbeing of the camp’s residents. Sadly, UNRWA has no such mandate from the Israelis, which in 1967 seized control of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip; and Israel has held all those areas — including the extensive Palestinian refugee camps within them — under military occupation since that year.

Many people have pointed out that if UNRWA did not exist to provide basic services to the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, then Israel would have the direct responsibility of doing so in its capacity as occupying power. Hence, actually, the existence and operations of the UNRWA-run camps in those two regions over the past 56.5 years, has provided a considerable financial boon to Israel. But many Israelis, especially those on the right, hate UNRWA because its existence is a constant reminder to the global public that the Palestinian refugee problem still exists and that all these Palestinian refugees, who now number > 10 million (both inside the camps, outside the camps, and worldwide), actually have the right to return to their families’ earlier, longstanding properties. Hence, the constant agitation from rightwing Zionists for dismantling UNRWA.

Another observation is that UNRWA is far from the only UN body against which there has been a constant (and growing) drumbeat of Israeli hostility. The present Israeli government has certainly upped the ante in this regard, with Netanyahu’s hyper-pugnacious ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, accusing the world body of anti-Semitism at every turn, wearing a yellow Star of David to formal UN meetings, and sounding off at every occasion.


For a group of settler extremists to turn against the very parent body that launched their initial settler-colonial project is by no means unusual in world history. Actually, the hard-line Zionists themselves did it in an earlier era, when Menachem Begin and other members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang launched a lengthy and lethal series of terror attacks against the British in Palestine. Here in Turtle Island (aka the USA), there was as I recall it a fervent uprising in 1776 by settler extremists against the very same British government that had earlier stolen the land from the Native peoples and turned ity over at bargain-basement prices to the settlers. In Algeria in the early 1960s, when the French government was considering doing a deal with Algeria’s nationalists, there was a fierce though blessedly short campaign by the settler-led OAS against De Gaulle’s government. He made short shrift of putting that rebellion down. In 1965, the “White” settlers in Rhodesia fearful that London might move toward reaching an accommodation with Indigenous Zimbabweans who constituted 95% of the country’s population issued a “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” from London. London treated those settlers with kid gloves and it took a further 14 years until the main liberation forces in Zimbabwe were able to take over the governance of their country…

And so it goes on. Settler-extremist patricide against the metropole has definitely long been a thing. The campaign the rightwing freaks who are currently ruling Israel are maintaining against the United Nations is nothing new-either in world-historical terms or in terms of the Zionists’ own history. Remember Count Folke Bernadotte, the distinguished Swedish diplomat who was murdered by the Zionist-extremist Lehi organization in Jerusalem in September 1948, when he was working to negotiate a set of armistice agreements between Israel and its neighbors.

(From Wikipedia)

The campaign that Israel’s current, extreme-right government has been waging against the United Nations may be nothing new in the long global history of settler patricide. But since it is aimed not against one imperial metropole as so many of those earlier campaigns were, but against the United Nations itself, it carries particular danger for the world system. This, at a time when the global balance is shifting quite rapidly and when the extreme violence that Israel has enacted in Gaza is threatening to trigger a very much broader regional, perhaps even global, conflagration.

This Wednesday, we may see some fireworks. The current chair of the UN Security Council, Algeria’s veteran diplomatist Amb. Amar Bendjama, has scheduled a special session of the SC for that day, with the goal of giving “binding effect” to the ruling the International Court of Justice issued on Friday that called for serious provisional measures to be taken by (and against) Israel in order to prevent its very likely continued commission of the crime of genocide.

Voyons voir…

Originally published at on January 28, 2024.



Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at