Israel proposes dismantlement of UNRWA in exchange for allowing more aid into Gaza

Right-wing Israeli protesters gather outside the West Bank field office of the UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians, in Jerusalem on March 20, 2024, to demand its closure. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2024
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Israel proposes dismantlement of UNRWA in exchange for allowing more aid into Gaza

  • Israel alleges, without proof, UNRWA staff involved in Oct. 7 attacks
  • Plan ‘outrageous,’ undermines UN authority, says ex-UNRWA official

LONDON: Israel has proposed to the UN the dismantlement of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, and suggested transitioning its responsibilities and staff to a new entity in exchange for allowing more food aid deliveries into Gaza, the Guardian reported on Sunday.

The proposal was presented by Israel’s Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi in discussions with UN officials in Israel earlier in March. These officials then relayed the proposal to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday, sources familiar with the discussions told the Guardian.

UNRWA, the main humanitarian organization operating in the Palestinian territories since 1950, was not involved in the talks because the Israel Defense Forces have refused to deal with it. This is on the basis of unverified claims that some of the agency’s staff participated in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

The IDF has yet to substantiate these claims, which have prompted a suspension of $450 million in funding from 16 major donors. This funding freeze comes at a critical time as Israel’s blockade is driving 2.3 million residents of Gaza to the brink of famine.

The proposal details the transition of 300 to 400 UNRWA staff to either an existing UN agency, like the World Food Programme, WFP, or a newly established organization focused on food distribution in Gaza.

The plan includes the eventual transfer of more UNRWA employees and assets, though it remains unclear who would manage the new entity or ensure the security of its operations.

Tamara Alrifai, the agency’s director of external relations, highlighted concerns that the proposed new entity’s limited scale would undermine effective aid distribution in Gaza, emphasizing UNRWA’s extensive infrastructure and human resource capabilities.

“This is no criticism of WFP, but logically if they were to start food distribution in Gaza tomorrow, they’re going to use UNRWA trucks and bring food into UNRWA warehouses, and then distribute food in or around UNRWA shelters,” she told the Guardian.

“So they’re going to need at a minimum the same infrastructure that we have, including the human resources.”

UNRWA is by far the largest aid organization in Gaza, employing 13,000 people when the war broke out, 3,000 of whom are still working. In addition to distributing food, the agency is a major employer in Gaza, providing education and critical medical services as the enclave’s healthcare system crumbles.

“It’s not just food. We have seven healthcare centers now running in Gaza, we give 23,000 consultations every day, and we have administered 53,000 vaccines since the war started. So that in itself is an entire field that no other agency right now can offer,” Alrifai said.

“It’s great that we’re focusing on food because of the famine, and we are raising the alarm about malnutrition, but UNRWA is so much more than food distribution.”

Some UN officials see the Israeli plan as an attempt to portray the UN as unwilling to cooperate if there is famine in Gaza, which humanitarian organizations have warned is impending.

Others in the UN, several aid agencies, and human rights organizations see the Israeli proposal as the result of a long-running campaign to eliminate UNRWA.

“If we allow this, it is the slippery slope to us being completely managed directly by the Israelis, and the UN directly being complicit in undermining UNRWA, which is not only the biggest aid provider but also the biggest bastion of anti-extremism in Gaza,” one UN official told the Guardian. “We would be playing into so many political agendas if we allowed this to happen.”

The US has privately endorsed Israel’s proposal to integrate the functions of UNRWA into other UN agencies. However, this initiative has faced opposition from various donors and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has consistently supported UNRWA.

During a visit last week to a refugee camp in Jordan, Guterres emphasized the importance of UNRWA, adding that it would be “cruel and incomprehensible” to stop its services to Palestinians.

UNRWA’s authority and continuation are sanctioned by the UN General Assembly, which is the only body with the power to determine the agency’s destiny.

Several UN aid officials assert that only UNRWA has the resources and trust of ordinary Palestinians to deliver food aid to Gaza. And that attempting to create a new aid organization for political reasons in response to Israeli demands amid its relentless bombardment of Gaza would be disastrous.

“It is outrageous that UN agencies like WFP and senior UN officials are engaging in discussions about dismantling UNRWA,” former UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told the Guardian. “The General Assembly gives UNRWA its mandate and only the General Assembly can change it, not the secretary-general and certainly not a single member state.”

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’Afraid to walk the streets’: Syria refugees face Lebanon expulsion

Updated 4 sec ago
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’Afraid to walk the streets’: Syria refugees face Lebanon expulsion

  • Standing at her husband’s vegetable stall by the side of the road outside the village of Minyara in Lebanon’s impoverished north, Janhat, 38, said she lives in a state of constant worry
MINYARA: For weeks, refugee Maryam Janhat has been living in fear of deportation as Lebanon cracks down on Syrians, with politicians ramping up calls for them to be forced home.
Refugees from Lebanon’s war-torn neighbor face a dilemma: should they stay and contend with stricter measures and growing anti-Syrian sentiment, or should they return home and risk poverty and repression?
Standing at her husband’s vegetable stall by the side of the road outside the village of Minyara in Lebanon’s impoverished north, Janhat, 38, said she lives in a state of constant worry.
“I am scared when (my husband and children) come to work at the stall. I am afraid they could take my son at any moment... we are afraid to walk the streets,” she said.
Syrians make up about half of Minyara’s 8,000 residents, the municipality says, with most living in tent camps adjacent to vast agricultural fields.
Janhat, who took refuge in the village a decade ago after fleeing violence in the central Syrian province of Homs, feels lucky to be living in a house rather than a flimsy tent.
But she and her family have been unable to renew their residency in Lebanon, and they fear being deported to Syria where she says they have “no house, no work, and no security.”
A few steps away, 70-year-old Ibrahim Mansour is offloading crates of fruit and vegetables from his van to sell.
Syrians “have stalls everywhere, competing with us in every sector,” he said.
“When they leave, the situation will improve a lot.”
Many Lebanese, including politicians, have long pushed for Syrians who have fled 13 years of civil war at home to return, blaming them for exacerbating Lebanon’s woes, including a crushing economic crisis that began in late 2019.
Lebanon says it currently hosts around two million people from Syria — the world’s highest number of refugees per capita — with almost 785,000 registered with the United Nations.
In recent months, politicians have ramped up anti-Syrian rhetoric, with Hassan Nasrallah, who heads the powerful Hezbollah group, urging Beirut to open the seas for migrant boats to reach Europe to pressure for more Western aid.
Earlier this month, the European Union announced $1 billion in aid to Lebanon to help tackle illegal migration, mostly of Syrians to nearby Cyprus, the bloc’s easternmost member.
Lebanon has long heavily relied on Syrians for manual labor, especially in agriculture and construction.
Minyara mayor Antoun Abboud said Syrians were needed in the workforce but that his village cannot accommodate large numbers of refugees or provide them with basic services.
“We are not telling them to leave. We just want to reduce... and organize Syrian presence” in Lebanon, he said.

Lebanese security forces have intensified a crackdown on Syrians without residency permits, shutting down their businesses and forcing them to evacuate their homes.
“Hate campaigns, legal restrictions, and unprecedented measures to make it difficult to obtain residency” are on the rise, said Sahar Mandour, Amnesty International’s Lebanon researcher.
This means most Syrians find themselves without legal residency, she said, adding that “voluntary returns are impossible in these conditions.”
In one of the informal camps near the village, children play in the dirt, while men sit idle, too frightened to leave.
“Everyone is scared,” said herder Hajjem, 37, who declined giving his last name for security concerns.
“Syrians cannot move anymore. Even laborers in the fields are skipping work,” he said, shearing his sheep near the camp, while women around him collected the wool.
He fled to Lebanon illegally eight years ago, at the height of Syria’s war, and cannot return because he says he is wanted by Damascus.
He said he has been too scared to venture outside for work since security forces began to clamp down more forcefully on Syrians.
“I can’t sleep at night because the army or security forces could deport us at any moment,” he said.
His elderly father is also filled with worry.
“If we leave, we will die of hunger. There are no opportunities in our country,” he said.
“It would be better to throw oneself into the sea.”

No sign of attack on Raisi’s helicopter: Iran’s military

Updated 54 min 5 sec ago
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No sign of attack on Raisi’s helicopter: Iran’s military

  • There was no sign of anything shot at the helicopter and its flight path did not change
  • Raisi was buried in a tomb at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad on Thursday

TEHRAN, Iran: The helicopter carrying Iran’s late President Ebrahim Raisi caught fire soon after it crashed into a mountain and there was no sign it was attacked, state media reported, citing the military’s crash investigators.
The statement from the general staff of the armed forces in charge of investigating the crash was read on state television late Thursday. The first statement on the crash did not lay blame but said more details would come after further investigation.
The crash Sunday killed Raisi, the country’s foreign minister and six other people.
The general staff’s statement said the communications between the control tower and the crew of the helicopter before the crash contained nothing suspicious. It said the last communication of the crashed helicopter was between it and two helicopters accompanying it some 90 seconds before the crash.
There was no sign of anything shot at the helicopter and its flight path did not change, the statement said.
The aging Bell helicopter went down in a foggy, remote mountainous region of Iran’s northwest on Sunday. The crash site was discovered Monday morning with all eight on board dead.
Raisi was buried in a tomb at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad on Thursday.


Israel’s army says the bodies of 3 more hostages killed on Oct 7. recovered overnight from Gaza

Updated 23 min 8 sec ago
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Israel’s army says the bodies of 3 more hostages killed on Oct 7. recovered overnight from Gaza

  • The announcement comes less than a week after the army said it found the bodies of three other Israeli hostages killed on Oct. 7
  • Israel says around 100 hostages are still captive in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more

TEL AVIV, Israel: The bodies of three more hostages killed on Oct 7. were recovered overnight from Gaza, Israel’s army said Friday, as the top United Nations court prepares to rule on whether Israel must halt its military operations and withdraw from the enclave.
The bodies of Hanan Yablonka, Michel Nisenbaum, and Orion Hernandez Radoux were found and their families have been notified. The army said they were killed on the day of the attack at the Mefalsim intersection and their bodies were taken to Gaza.
The announcement comes less than a week after the army said it found the bodies of three other Israeli hostages killed on Oct. 7.
Hamas-led militants killed around 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducted around 250 others in the Oct. 7 attack. Around half of those hostages have since been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel during a weeklong ceasefire in November.
Israel says around 100 hostages are still captive in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to both eliminate Hamas and bring all the hostages back, but he’s made little progress. He faces pressure to resign, and the US has threatened to scale back its support over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
On Friday Netanyahu said the country had a duty to do everything to return those abducted, both those killed and those who are alive.
The country is also expecting a ruling Friday afternoon by the International Court of Justice to decide on an urgent plea by South Africa to order Israel to cease operations. Israel is unlikely to comply with any such order. Even so, a ceasefire order by judges of the International Court of Justice would heap more pressure on an increasingly isolated Israel.
On the hostages, Israelis are divided into two main camps: those who want the government to put the war on hold and free the hostages, and others who think the hostages are an unfortunate price to pay for eradicating Hamas. On-and-off negotiations mediated by Qatar, the United States and Egypt have yielded little.
Anger is growing at home at the government’s handling of the hostage crisis.
Earlier this week a group representing the families of hostages released new video footage showing Hamas’ capture of five female Israeli soldiers near the Gaza border on Oct. 7.
The video shows several of the young soldiers bloody and wounded. In one scene, a militant tells one of the terrified women she is beautiful.
The video sparked more protests across the country calling for the hostages’ release.
The army said on Friday the hostages were found during an operation in Jabaliya. Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a news conference that the army was able to retrieve the bodies based on “critical intelligence” uncovered last week by Israeli forces operating in Gaza.
The group representing the families of the hostages said the bodies had been returned to their families for burial.
Nisenbaum, 59, was a Brazilian-Israeli from the southern city of Sderot. He was taken hostage when he went to rescue his 4-year-old granddaughter.
Oryon Hernandez Radoux, 30, was a French-Mexican citizen taken from the Nova music festival, which he attended with his partner Shani Louk. Louk’s body was one of those found by the army nearly a week ago.
Yablonka, 42, a father of two, was also taken from the music festival. His family in December told the AP that he loved music. Yablonka’s family had no news of him for nearly two months after he’d been taken, not knowing if he was alive or dead.
Israel’s offensive since the war began has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, and has caused a humanitarian crisis and a near-famine.
While it has weakened Hamas’ capabilities, after nearly eight months of war, militants are regrouping in some of the hardest-hit areas in northern Gaza and resuming rocket attacks into nearby Israeli communities. Israel says its troops are operating in Rafah in the south, in central Gaza and in Jabaliya in the north.


Israel to stop work of Spanish consulate for Palestinians

Updated 24 May 2024
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Israel to stop work of Spanish consulate for Palestinians

JERUSALEM: Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Friday he had decided to “sever the connection” between Spain’s diplomatic mission and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, in response to Madrid’s plan to formally recognize a Palestinian state.
“I have decided to sever the connection between Spain’s representation in Israel and the Palestinians, and to prohibit the Spanish consulate in Jerusalem from providing services to Palestinians from the West Bank,” Katz said in a post on X, adding it was “in response to Spain’s recognition of a Palestinian state and the anti-Semitic call by Spain’s deputy prime minister to... ‘liberate Palestine from the river to the sea’.”


Security Council to vote on resolution decrying attacks on UN and aid workers, demanding protection

Updated 24 May 2024
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Security Council to vote on resolution decrying attacks on UN and aid workers, demanding protection

  • The Swiss-sponsored resolution expresses grave concern at the growing number of attacks and threats against UN and humanitarian personnel
  • The draft resolution does not single out any conflict

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote Friday on a resolution that strongly condemns attacks on humanitarian workers and UN personnel, and demands that all combatants protect them in accordance with international law.
The Swiss-sponsored resolution expresses grave concern at the growing number of attacks and threats against UN and humanitarian personnel along with the continuing disregard and violations of international humanitarian law by combatants.
“The goal of the resolution is as simple as it is important,” Switzerland’s UN Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It’s about protecting the men and women who work and risk their lives — every day — to help people affected by armed conflict.”
The draft resolution does not single out any conflict, but it is being voted on as battles rage in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar and many other hotspots around the world.
It is the seven-month war in Gaza, however, that has seen the greatest number of attacks on UN and humanitarian personnel. Over 190 UN staff have been killed, a death toll unprecedented in the United Nations’ nearly 80-year history, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The war has also seen the killing of other humanitarian personnel, including seven World Central Kitchen workers who died in an Israeli airstrike last month.
Baeriswyl said in a statement to AP that the resolution is being put to a vote at a very timely moment. The Geneva Conventions, which Baeriswyl described as the cornerstone of international humanitarian law and a reflection of our common humanity, commemorates its 75th anniversary in August.
The draft resolution calls on all countries to respect and protect humanitarian and UN personnel as required by international law. And it calls on all nations and parties to armed conflict to respect international humanitarian law and their obligations under the Geneva Conventions. It “strongly condemns attacks and all forms of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, threats and intimidation against humanitarian personnel and United Nations and associated personnel.”
The draft urges combatants “to respect the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in the conduct of hostilities and refrain from attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”
The proposed resolution also urges warring parties to facilitate “full, safe, rapid and unhindered humanitarian access to all civilians in need, and to promote the safety, security and freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel and United Nations and associated personnel.”
On another issue, the draft condemns “disinformation, information manipulation and incitement to violence” against humanitarian and UN staff and it encourages all countries and the United Nations to take action to address these threats.
If approved, the resolution would express the council’s determination to take steps to provide for the safety and security of humanitarian and UN staff. It would ask the UN Secretary-General to make recommendations within six months on measures to prevent attacks, ensure accountability and enhance protection of humanitarian and UN staff.