Israel Drafts Bill to Declare the UNRWA as a Terror Organization

The Israeli Knesset voted today, May 29th, for the preliminary reading of a draft bill which will declare the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or the UNRWA, as a terror organization. The bill is the latest in a series of actions taken by Israel against the UNRWA, the primary deliverer of aid to many Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza.

The Bill and Israel’s Gripes with the UNRWA

The bill put forward by opposition Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Yulia Malinovsky declares the UNRWA a terror organization, as well as severs relations between the UNRWA and Israel.

“The purpose of this bill is to declare UNRWA as a terrorist organization for all intents and purposes as well as order the termination of the relations [and the cooperation] of the State of Israel with the agency, either directly or indirectly” -the introduction of Malinovsky’s bill

Separate from the bill, Malinovsky further specified it “will allow for a complete dissociation from the agency—no cooperation, no trade, nothing.”

A preliminary reading was also held, and voted upon, on a separate bill regarding the UNRWA that was put forward by Likud (Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party) member Dan Illouz. Illouz’s bill seeks to strip the UNRWA of several different immunities, including to lawsuits, taxation, imports and exports, and more.

Both bills held their preliminary readings today, and passed. Now, the two bills will be handed to committees that will solidify the details of the bills, before they head back to the Knesset for their first, second, and third readings. Provided they pass these, they will then become law.

Following the successful vote on her bill, Malinovsky stated that “Today was the first step on the way to completing the legislation so that UNRWA is finally outlawed and defined as a terrorist organization.” Illouz expressed similar sentiments about his bill.

“This is an essential law for our national security. After October 7, we cannot continue as if nothing happened. We cannot allow the terror supporting organization UNRWA to operate against us. We are fighting for our security and our future and UNRWA cannot pretend to be a humanitarian entity while harming us. That ends today” -Likud MK Dan Illouz

*A statement from Yisrael Beiteinu chairman, Avigdor Liberman, urging other “zionist factions in the Knesset” to support the bill and pass it “as soon as possible.”

The bills are the latest attack that Israel has made against the UNRWA.

The stated reasoning behind the bills, are a series of accusations from Israeli authorities against the UNRWA that a number of their members are also members of terror organizations, namely Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

According to Israel, who first made the accusations in late December, 12 members of the UNRWA were directly involved in Hamas’ October 7th attack upon Israel, while more are members of Hamas. The accusation has since expanded on several occasions, including on individuals involved in the attack itself, later adding seven more people to the list. Presently, Israel claims that 19 members of the UNRWA were directly involved in the October 7th attacks (though, notably, the bill itself states that “at least 12” were involved, in reference to the original accusation), and that 1,468, approximately 10% of the UNRWA’s 13,000 members, were either members of or connected to Hamas and the PIJ.

These accusations caused a number of different countries, including the US and Germany (the UNRWA’s two largest donors, respectively), to cut funding to the UNRWA. The UNRWA immediately terminated contracts with the 12 employees accused, and the UN began an investigation into the situation.

The investigation, however, has been complicated by a lack of evidence supplied by Israel. Israel has provided little evidence to the UN, or to foreign intelligence agencies on the matter.

Despite this, several months on the UN has made some progress on its investigation, and implemented several measures in order to increase transparency within the organization.

Regarding the members accused of participating in attacks, however, several of the cases were suspended due to a lack of evidence from Israel. Additionally, one case was closed, also due to a lack of evidence from Israel. Two of the accused have also died since the war began, although the UNRWA did not mention how they died. The remainder of the cases that have not been closed or suspended are still under investigation.

As the UN has released some of their findings in their investigations, which they shared with many of the nations which ceased funding to the UNRWA, several of these nations have reinstated funding, such as Canada, Japan, and Sweden. The EU, who also ceased funding, reinstated funding prior to the release of results of the investigations.

Germany and the US have not reinstated funding.

The UN has stated they will prosecute anyone involved in “acts of terror.”

The Importance of the UNRWA

The UNRWA has been incredibly important in the present conflict. Since the beginning of the Israel-Gaza War on October 7th, and prior, the UNRWA has been the primary humanitarian organization operating within Gaza, distributing most of the aid within Gaza.

A photo of flour from the UNRWA being distributed at a UNRWA school in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 28th, 2024 (Photo from Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90).

As such, the UNRWA has been pivotal to humanitarian operations in Gaza, which have extensive demands. However, as the war has gone on, the UNRWA’s resources have dwindled. This is in large part because of an extreme lack of aid resources entering Gaza, as well as the large cuts to the UNRWA’s funding. Beyond this, a number of pieces of the UNRWA’s equipment, such as vehicles, institutions, and other infrastructure have been damaged, destroyed, or left abandoned as the result of evacuations. This further impacts the UNRWA’s operability.

Beyond direct aid delivery, however, the UNRWA offers a number of other services, such as education, medical services, and more. These services within Gaza have also been disrupted extensively, though small attempts to continue to offer education and medical services are being made.

The UNRWA does not operate solely within Gaza. The UNRWA also operates within the West Bank, as well as servicing Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In total, the UNRWA services several million people.

A photo of a damaged UNRWA building within Gaza (Photo from AFP/Getty Images).

The UNRWA in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria would largely be unaffected by the two bills presented in the Knesset, however the bills carry the potential to threaten the UNRWA’s operations in the West Bank and Gaza, more than they already have been.

The effects the bills would have, namely if it would force the UNRWA to cease operations in the West Bank and Gaza, are not immediately clear.

If it does force a cessation of operations, it is unclear if Israel would have any alternatives for the services the UNRWA offers, as the bill put forward by Malinovsky does not suggest any.

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray is a published journalist and historicist with over 5 years experience in writing. His primary focus is on East and West African affairs.


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