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Assistance as Containment

A historical take on defunding the UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) came into being as a temporary expedient in 1949, when the brand-new UN General Assembly agreed that “continued assistance for the relief of the Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability, and that constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.” Seventy-five years later, this “temporary” institution is one of the UN’s largest agencies, with more than thirty thousand employees and an annual core “human development services” budget of $817 million in 2022. It is charged with the welfare of 5.9 million registered Palestinian refugees, for whom it runs 58 camps, some 700 schools, and 140 health care clinics across the Middle East. Now, UNRWA is one of a very small number of agencies still providing some aid to a brutalized Gaza, where imminent thirst, starvation, and disease loom as existential threats to the more than two million Palestinians under Israeli attack.

UNRWA has been in the news many times over its decades of operation, often for its relationship to the Palestinian nationalist movement. This year, it came under scrutiny again when the UN fired several UNRWA employees following Israeli claims that they had assisted Hamas in its October 7 attack on Israeli military and civilian targets. These claims prompted more than a dozen countries, including the United States, to suspend funding for UNRWA, which depends almost exclusively on donor money for its operations. (Congress’s recently passed spending package barred U.S. funding to UNRWA through March 2025.) On January 27, the agency’s commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini wrote that “Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing.” In an official statement, he declared, “It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff,” adding that “an independent review by external experts will help UNRWA strengthen its framework for the strict adherence of all staff to the humanitarian principles.” 

What are those humanitarian principles? UNRWA’s own language declares them to be the principles of “humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.” Humanity: a commitment “to protect life and health.” Neutrality: actors “must not take sides in hostilities or engage in public disputes or controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature.” Impartiality: “humanitarian actions must be carried out on the basis of need alone.” Independence: these actions “must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives . . . of any government or other political or military actor, except where those objectives coincide with independent humanitarian objectives.” How, one might ask, is it feasible for a decades-old organization that in many ways operates as a state—running schools, maintaining infrastructure, providing supplies, structuring health care systems—to remain outside politics? What could such a claim possibly mean in practice?

The problem of mass Palestinian expulsion might, in other words, be made to disappear via the simultaneous submerging of the political and advancement of the “humanitarian.”

These principles derive from the decision, taken at the moment of UNRWA’s founding, to segregate the essentially, inescapably political question at the heart of Israel’s founding from the provision of material aid to Palestinian refugees. Immediately after the war, that basic question—what rights would accrue to those dispossessed, displaced, and denationalized by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians to return to their homes?—was turned over to a different new organization, dubbed the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), and assigned the task of devising a political solution to the problem of Palestinian displacement. This division of responsibility allowed the UN to declare that because there existed a separate institution to deal with the political issue, UNRWA would remain purely and strictly “humanitarian,” explicitly forbidden from engaging in any of the structural questions surrounding Palestinian refugeehood. The unspoken hope at the time was that while the UNCCP engaged in its ever-less-productive political investigations, UNRWA’s tactics of aid would quietly integrate displaced Palestinians into surrounding areas via the provision of employment elsewhere (hence the “Works” in the agency’s name). The problem of mass Palestinian expulsion might, in other words, be made to disappear via the simultaneous submerging of the political and advancement of the “humanitarian.”

This calculation half worked. The UNCCP did indeed quickly dissipate as a force, along with the will to enact an actual political solution to Palestinians’ dispossession and displacement. As the commission’s charge to “facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation” became manifestly more and more impossible in the face of Israeli intransigence, it dwindled into a nonentity, eventually abandoning even its Technical Office’s relatively modest task of documenting Palestinian property losses. The UNCCP is still theoretically in operation but has been functionally in abeyance since 1965, issuing an annual statement to the effect that it has “nothing new to report.”

The “humanitarian” goal of unobtrusively resettling the refugees, though, proved more difficult to accomplish. UNRWA’s first few years were marked by a near-total rate of failure in establishing displaced Palestinians as workers in the surrounding countries—largely a consequence of resistance from the refugees themselves, who fully understood what the agency was trying to do. Instead, the UN gradually settled on using UNRWA as an instrument of containment: offering some of the structures and provisions of a government (though notably without any institutions of representation) as a way of physically confining its charges and keeping a lid on Palestinian political action throughout the Middle East. The American diplomat John Davis, who headed UNRWA between 1959 and 1963, perhaps put it most clearly: “UNRWA was one of the prices—and perhaps the cheapest—that the international community was paying for not having been able to solve with equity the political problems of the refugees.” He added, “It was surely well worth the cost.”

Over the subsequent decades, then, UNRWA struck a bargain among its donors, its host states, and its Palestinian charges: it would keep alive the flames of Palestinian nationalism, particularly via its schools, in return for more or less absolute restrictions on institutional political action. The fact that UNRWA had to maintain its “apolitical” stance at the international level ensured, as its donors well understood, that there would be no space for the airing of Palestinian political claims to return or to statehood. (As the Palestine Liberation Organization operative Salah Salah put it, “The Jews got Israel and we got UNRWA.”) This did not of course mean that the agency somehow existed outside of politics in its everyday practice; UNRWA’s camps, schools, and workplaces became crucial spaces for working out Palestinian nationalist narratives, organizational tactics, and even sometimes military strategy. But all these were tagged as basically, essentially illegitimate at the level of the international, via the continued insistence that UNRWA was a strictly humanitarian operation. The premise of “humanitarian principle” thus became a tool for a more or less absolute form of political blackout.

It is in this context that we need to understand the connections between the Israeli charges against twelve of UNRWA’s staff members (which have now, to some degree, come into question in the apparent absence of evidence) and the entire organization’s subsequent broad defunding by a coalition of donor states. The crucial thing to note here is that it is not just aid to Hamas, but any political activity at all, that is disallowed as a condition of UNRWA’s operation. This moment thus serves to remind the tens of thousands of Palestinians who work for the agency, and the millions more who rely on its services, that their political existence is, as a matter of definition, illegitimate.

One of UNRWA’s main purposes is to perpetuate and broadcast the fiction that humanitarian aid to civilians somehow renders military action among them less reprehensible

The current threat, though, goes further than that. For many decades, the device of enforcing an apolitical humanitarianism to control Palestinian political expression proved profoundly useful to UNRWA’s donor states and stakeholders, including Israel. After the 1967 war Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan called UNRWA’s presence in Gaza “an extraordinarily good arrangement” for Israel; Netanyahu himself apparently tried to convince the Trump administration in 2018 not to cut funding to UNRWA, on the grounds that such a move might destabilize Gaza. But developments since October imply that this bargain, struck at the UN so many decades ago, might finally be disintegrating.

The current impulse to use this moment to eliminate UNRWA altogether suggests that the longstanding Western solutions to the Palestinian “problem”—containment and depoliticization—are giving way to a new operational principle of straightforward destruction. UNRWA has thirteen thousand employees in Gaza and is the only relief organization operating there with the reach to deliver significant if still insufficient amounts of aid. More than a million Palestinians are currently taking shelter in UNRWA facilities, damaged though many of them are. Gazans are suffering, already, from mass malnutrition; the World Food Programme has projected mass famine in northern Gaza (where Israel has now barred UNRWA from making food deliveries) as early as May if current circumstances are not radically altered. An ICJ order that Israel allow in more aid has so far had little effect. Observers are beginning to understand Israel’s attempts to shut down UNRWA, both through logistical restrictions on its operations and by pressing for its defunding, as a new kind of “starvation strategy” intended straightforwardly to reduce the numbers of Palestinians in Gaza.

There is no doubt that if UNRWA continues to be rendered entirely or partially non-operational in Gaza, the mass death already underway will spiral further. This is a truth that can coexist with the observation that UNRWA was designed, and has for decades successfully served, to contain and muffle Palestinian political and legal claims. And, of course, as its donors have long understood, it is further true that one of UNRWA’s main purposes, like all such organizations in war zones across the globe, is to perpetuate and broadcast the fiction that humanitarian aid to civilians somehow renders military action among them less reprehensible. Should Israel’s attempt to destroy UNRWA succeed, it will represent, among other things, a public admission of the ultimate and total fraudulence of claims that this attack or any other could qualify as a humane war.