UNRWA funding cuts: starving a colonised people

8 February 2024
Nick Everett

Starving a colonised people has long been a favoured policy of imperial powers.

Consider, for example, India and Ireland under British colonial rule. According to research by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel, India suffered 165 million excess deaths between 1881 and 1920, largely due to starvation. One million Irish (a quarter of the population) starved in the “Great Famine” between 1845 and 1851, their potatoes exported to feed Britain. Indians and Irish alike were collateral damage in a system of “laissez-faire” capitalism imposed by their British colonial masters.

The literal translation of “laissez-faire” is “let it happen”. And “let it happen” they did.

India once exported quality textiles to all corners of the globe. Under British rule, India’s textile industry was reduced from riches to rags. The colonial regime removed tariffs to enable British goods to flood the domestic market and subordinated India’s peasant workforce to cheap producers of cotton to feed the “dark, satanic mills” of British industry.

Mike Davis, in his monumental book Late Victorian Holocausts, documents that famines that plagued India, northern China and north-eastern Brazil were not simply historical accidents but the direct consequence of capitalist “modernisation” pursued by the European imperial powers.

Today, more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are beset with the same fate.

A staggering 85 percent of Gaza’s population—1.9 million people—have been forcibly displaced during Israel’s current offensive, according to the UN. Their homes have been reduced to rubble by a relentless Israeli bombing campaign made possible by lavish US military aid.

As Israeli forces push south, Gaza’s homeless population have converged on Rafah, the sole crossing point between Egypt and the besieged Palestinian territory. More than half of Gaza’s population are now crammed into UN-run schools, public buildings and sprawling tent cities, with their only lifeline a thin line of aid trucks.

Israeli checkpoints ensure that the trickle of aid that gets through is not nearly enough for subsistence. The World Food Program estimates that half a million people are starving. Hepatitis A and cholera are now spreading through these camps due to poor nutrition and the lack of sanitation.

The collapse of the health system is exacerbating the crisis. Just fourteen of Gaza’s 36 hospitals remain open. All have been targets for Israel’s military operations: all lack the resources needed to provide effective care. In December, UNICEF reported that more than 1,000 children have had limbs amputated, with most operations performed without anaesthesia.

On 26 January, the United States and Canada announced a halt to their funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the primary source of aid to destitute Palestinians. The following day, the UK, Australia, Germany, France, Japan, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy and Finland followed suit.

The flimsy pretext for the attack on UNRWA funding was Israel’s claim that twelve Gaza-based UNRWA staff (out of 13,000) participated in the Hamas breakout of Gaza on 7 October and the subsequent kidnapping of Israeli citizens. The sole evidence provided by Israeli officials was “confessions” from captured Palestinian fighters, likely extracted under torture.

On 28 January, the New York Times reported that its journalists had reviewed an Israeli intelligence dossier that revised down the number of UNRWA employees involved to just six and cited surveillance of text messages as the source of its claim. Nonetheless, UNRWA summarily sacked nine of the accused without an independent investigation.

In a further attack on the UN agency, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told UN ambassadors that “UNRWA is totally infiltrated with Hamas” and that it should be immediately shut down.

Israel announced its spurious claims about UNRWA on the same day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) determined that South Africa had made a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians of Gaza. The ICJ’s interim ruling called on Israel to cease impeding the delivery of aid to Gaza and to take all measures within its power to prevent acts of genocide and punish incitement to genocide.

This funding cut is not just another exercise in the collective punishment of Palestinians: it demonstrates the West’s complicity in Israel’s genocide. The combined attack on UNRWA, and the case made against it, serve as a convenient counter-narrative to imply that the evidence provided to the ICJ by UNRWA officials supporting South Africa’s claims of genocide is not credible.

Since 1949, UNRWA has provided a lifeline of aid to 1.5 million Palestinians residing in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, providing employment, education, health care and food aid. Its establishment followed the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), when 750,000 Palestinians were forced into exile to make way for the newly created state of Israel.

UNRWA at the time served Israel’s interests. By creating a separate body to the International Refugee Organisation (forerunner of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), it undermined the idea that Palestinians were genuine refugees, like Jews following WWII, and therefore deserving of protection. And it provided a means for other states to foot the bill for the Zionist state’s ethnic cleansing and brutal occupation of Palestinian territory. Nevertheless, it maintained that Palestinian were a displaced people with rights that should be upheld, including the right of return to their ancestral lands as enshrined in UN Resolution 194.

The vast majority of Gaza’s population are refugees, or descendants of refugees, from 1948 Palestine—the land that became Israel. Consequently, the Netanyahu government wants to drive them out of Gaza into the Sinai desert and destroy any links they retain with their homeland. Today’s Gaza Nakba echoes 1948: it is being pursued by Israel for the same objectives. Only this time around, it has the unqualified support of the US, the world’s only global superpower.

For years now, both the state of Israel and its American Zionist supporters have attempted to whip up a storm about UNRWA’s supposed aid to Palestinian “terrorism” (anti-colonial resistance). UNRWA has come to represent something Israel despises: Palestinians’ common sense of national identity.

In 2018, US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew all US funding to UNRWA at the behest of Netanyahu. Trump subsequently announced the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his commitment to support Israel’s annexation of settler enclaves in the West Bank, believing he could forcibly impose a settlement on the Palestinians that he hailed as “the deal of the century”.

Like every other US-sponsored “peace plan”, it offered Palestinians nothing. The Biden administration quietly resumed US funding, while offering Tel Aviv all the military and diplomatic support it needed to continue its rampage against Palestinians.

The very survival of Palestinians as a people currently lies in the balance. The ICJ ruling provides important vindication for the pro-Palestinians voices that have been ignored or criticised for calling Israel’s war what it is: genocide. But it won’t put off the powers intent on overseeing the elimination of the Palestinians.

Today’s imperial powers—like those of the nineteenth century—are prepared to inflict hunger and misery on a mass scale to preserve their order, where trade and profits trump human lives. We must continue to come out onto the streets and demand that Palestine be free: from the river to the sea.

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