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Defunding UNRWA and collective punishment

Donor nations have every right to expect the agency to abide by the values of the United Nations and to withhold support if it does not.

UNRWA staff members protest against cuts in financial aid outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on April 14, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90.
UNRWA staff members protest against cuts in financial aid outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on April 14, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90.
Rabbi Shlomo Levin. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Shlomo Levin
Rabbi Shlomo Levin is the author of The Human Rights Haggadah.

The 14th chapter of the book of Leviticus describes a mysterious disease that infects houses. It states that when this disease is suspected, the dwelling must initially be left empty for seven days. If that doesn’t cure it, then the walls of the house must then be demolished.

The rabbis note that houses are often constructed adjacent to one another, so destroying the walls of the infected home means that the neighbors might well each lose a side of their homes as well. About this, the Mishnah (Negaim 12:6) says: “Woe unto the wicked, and woe unto his neighbor.” Living next to someone wicked can be bad news. Unfortunately, it’s likely that when wicked people are punished, their innocent neighbors will suffer as well.

This teaching comes to mind as we consider the response to recent allegations by Israel that around 10% of the employees of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is responsible for caring for Palestinian refugees, have ties to Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Israel further presented evidence that a dozen UNRWA employees actively took part in the Oct. 7 massacre.

UNRWA immediately fired those employees, and U.N. leaders made statements about how terrorism is unacceptable. But in response to this scandal, numerous countries, including the United States, have also put a hold on UNRWA’s funding.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini bitterly protested these funding cuts, calling it collective punishment of the Palestinians. He says there is no reason that all of its employees and the Palestinians they serve should be harmed because of the misdeeds of a small number of people.

Is this truly collective punishment? Collective punishment is a war crime, included in the Geneva Conventions. It is defined as punishing an entire group or population for a crime committed by only some of its members. For example, consider a situation in which someone in a village throws an explosive at a soldier, but the soldiers cannot identify who. It would be forbidden as collective punishment for the soldiers to take action against the whole village as a means of deterring future attacks.

The rationale is that collective punishment violates the right of every individual to a legal process in which evidence is presented against them, and they have the opportunity to offer a defense. The fact that the soldiers are unable to identify the perpetrator and therefore need a shortcut is not a justification for depriving people of their rights.

But this does not mean that innocent people aren’t affected when the guilty are punished. For example, when someone is sent to prison, that has far-reaching consequences for their children and family. If a court levies a fine against a business, employees and suppliers may lose jobs. Each of us is connected to others, so whatever happens to one person necessarily impacts many more. If we refrained from imposing punishments unless it was possible to do so without affecting any innocent parties, no one would ever be punished at all.

The problem with collective punishment is that the punitive measures themselves are also taken against the innocent. This is different from measures directed only against the guilty but due to which innocent people are inevitably also affected.

So what about UNRWA? The accusation is that it flagrantly fails to screen its employees to the point where it has active terrorists on its payroll, and Israel has many additional serious complaints about the agency as well. Withholding funding is therefore an appropriate response. UNRWA has acted badly and failed to fulfill its mission; therefore, it will no longer get funds.

What about the many UNRWA employees who don’t engage in terrorism? This is no different than what happens when a company acts recklessly and then goes bust: Workers who were not part of management and had nothing to do with causing the problems inevitably suffer, too.

More serious is the Palestinians who depend on UNRWA for their basic necessities. Clearly, nothing the agency does or does not do can cause people to lose their right to food and shelter. But UNRWA cannot get away with allowing its employees to quite literally commit mass murder by claiming that no one can ever take away its funding because then people will starve. Countries freezing funds should be asked about what alternative plans they have in the works to help meet the humanitarian needs of Palestinians. Still, donor nations have every right to expect UNRWA to abide by the values of the United Nations and to withhold support if it does not.

What we have here is not collective punishment, but rather a case like what is described in the Bible. Action is being taken against a guilty party that inevitably also harms others nearby. An apt rabbinic phrase might be: “Woe to the wicked, and woe to those who have come to depend on the wicked for aid.”

Just like the community should care for neighbors who for no fault of their own lose parts of their houses, Israel and former UNRWA donors should find other means of helping Palestinians find food and shelter.

But defunding UNRWA is not collective punishment. When a U.N. agency lets its employees commit acts of terrorism, taking away its funds is the appropriate—and absolutely necessary—thing to do.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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