How the Unjust Assault on the UNRWA Undermines Liberal Humanitarianism

How the Unjust Assault on the UNRWA Undermines Liberal Humanitarianism

How the Unjust Assault on the UNRWA Undermines Liberal Humanitarianism

The decision by Western powers to defund the aid agency in Gaza further imperils civilians, while undermining the credibility of key global institutions. 


On Friday, January 26, 2024, the collapse of the liberal international order was visible to the naked eye. In the morning, the International Court of Justice at The Hague (ICJ) delivered its preliminary ruling ordering Israel to stop acts of genocide in Gaza. By that same afternoon, many self-styled guardians of the liberal order—the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands—announced that they were suspending funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The rationale for the decision was a series of allegations from Israel that UNRWA workers were involved in the October 7 terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas on Israeli civilians.

The liberal order, memorialized in founding documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and upheld in institutions such as the United Nations, has been on life support for some time now. A key collateral casualty of its ailing condition has been the doctrine of humanitarianism, which seeks to curb the most callous and unaccountable forms of state impunity against the fundamental rights of civilian noncombatants in the modern age. The entire course of the Israeli invasion of Gaza has underlined this grim truth, but the concerted effort to hamstring the UNRWA, which has been providing critical aid and assistance to dispossessed Palestinians for decades, has definitively stripped away the last remaining conceits that Western powers are acting in the higher interests of humanity.

Even as The New York Times first announced the news, reporters Monika Pronczuk and Richard Perez-Pena had to admit that “it was not entirely clear” what allegations had spurred the abrupt decision to cut off a vital lifeline of support for 2 million Gazans contending with the ravages of a war carried out on them. Annoyed by this acknowledgement, Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, repaired to the BBC’s Newshour to claim that an Israeli hostage reported being “held in the house of someone who worked for UNRWA.” Three Washington Post reporters, meanwhile, had been unable to independently verify this claim. Other charges pertaining to the alleged activities of UNRWA workers on October 7 are awaiting further confirmation.

But such equivocal findings didn’t matter in the bigger picture. It was enough for the keepers of the liberal order that Hamas had infected this last limb of humanitarianism—even though, if one were to credit all of Israel’s allegations, the charges involved just 12 workers in an agency employing more than 13,000 staffers in Gaza (the agency has around 30,000 employees in the Occupied Territories). The inhabitants of Gaza were now to be denied even the meager assistance due them just on the basis of being human. Particularly in the wake of the ICJ decision, the withdrawal of support from the UNRWA amounted to a declaration of Gazans’ sub-humanity; it was the guiding logic of Israel’s collective punishment of Gazan civilians translated into mandates of the global administrative aid complex.

The UNRWA decision was also a declaration of maximum jurisdictional power in the arbitration of human rights. The ICJ’s cautious provisional order, which stopped short of ordering Israel to stop bombing Gaza, had nonetheless dared to intervene in a sphere of deliberation that the lead players in Western diplomacy had reserved for themselves. As Gissou Nia, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, observed, the ICJ had dared take talk of genocide “from the rhetorical, to the factual to the legal.”

By contrast, it’s abundantly clear that here’s nothing rhetorical about the suspension of aid for a Gazan population fending off indiscriminate Israeli attacks and contending with the specter of starvation. No wonder, then, that UNRWA Commissioner General Phillip Lazzarini declared, “It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff.” Lazzarini begged the states who had acted so precipitously to reconsider their decision. His efforts failed, even though UNRWA had preemptively fired at least 10 of 12 people alleged to have collaborated with Hamas, while the agency was still investigating the allegations. (UNRWA has since announced that two of the accused staffers are now dead.)

Members of the Israeli right have long condemned the UNRWA as a fifth-column formation funded by global aid support. Hard-line supporters of the occupation and expanded Israeli settlements contend that UNWRA workers advance the cause of antisemitism by the simple act of designating displaced Palestinians as refugees who have a right to return to the homes they lost to Israeli settlers. The tacit logic behind such claims is that the UNRWA’s mission stands athwart the goal of granting Israel complete authoritarian control over the Palestinians.

The Western aid bloc’s rapid accession to this ideological reasoning underlines the allied effort to downplay and disregard the ICJ ruling in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel. The ICJ does not have an enforcement mechanism; even if the judges on the court had ordered a cease-fire outright, their recommendations would go to the United Nations Security Council. There, the usual power dynamics would kick in, with the United States wielding veto power, and completely averse to acknowledging its pivotal role in the Gazan genocide.

It did not have to be this way. If the United States had, instead of instantly turning on the UNRWA, declared that it supported the decision of the ICJ, liberal humanitarian institutions could regain legitimate footing in global affairs. That course of action would have gone a long way toward repairing Western powers’ relations with the Muslim world, which has responded to the imperial overreach of the Global War on Terror with increasing reliance on local and faith-based humanitarian organizations. To take one example, the charity Islamic Relief ran a relief camp in Yemen that has provided 19,000 people with food, water, shelter, and healthcare. It has run other relief camps in many other countries like Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The indispensable work of groups like Islamic Relief has moved into the vacuum of social trust left by powers like the United States, and aid initiatives associated with the United Nations.

The move to discredit UNRWA also stands out in stark relief alongside the misdeeds of other UN aid workers. A 2021 report found that WHO and UN staffers were guilty of sexual abuse during the 2018–20 Ebola response. In the Central African Republic, several UN peacekeepers were just withdrawn in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse. In neither case were the affiliated agencies decommissioned or defunded.

Such flagrant hypocrisy—particularly when it concerns the fate of non-white, non-Western populations—only further discredits a liberal humanitarian order teetering on the brink of delegitimation. As the world confronts escalating crises, from terrorism and famine to climate change and genocidal war, we have failed to nourish the postwar liberal consensus that sought to secure basic human rights across the globe.

The leaders who helped put the postwar liberal order together—the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—feared just this outcome. The second and not yet final draft of the rights declaration bore eloquent testimony to this fear; the never-adopted language in that draft declared that “ignorance and contempt of human rights have been the principal causes of the sufferings of humanity and in particular of the massacres which have polluted the World during the World Wars.” One longs in vain to hear a similar confident declaration of first principles from an aid community that’s become increasingly captive to the realpolitik double standards endorsed by Israel, the United States, and other Western powers apparently hell-bent on denying the basic humanity of Gazans.

It’s not yet known exactly how the suspension of the UNRWA’s funds will affect the people in Gaza. But the UNRWA has long furnished basic material support and services to Gazans; amid the humanitarian crisis of the Israeli invasion, it’s not unrealistic to expect the agency’s withdrawal could trigger a complete collapse of the already battered aid infrastructure in Gaza.

One additional cruel irony attends the baleful decision to pull the plug on so much international support for the UNRWA: The day after the decision was reached was Holocaust Remembrance Day. The descendants of the victims of the Holocaust and their allies gathered in former concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen and memorial sites dedicated to the Shoah. It was an especially grim reminder that the principal moral of Holocaust remembrance—“never again”—is now endangered by the very same liberal order that first took up that charge.

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