newsIsrael at War

Israel can refuse UNRWA access to Gaza, says ex-agency legal adviser

“Some donor nations, probably led by the U.S., could defund and in whole or in part end UNRWA,” says James Lindsay.

From left, MK Sharren Haskel, former UNRWA legal adviser James G. Lindsay, Mindset-PCS managing director Ophelie Namiech and University of Reading Professor Rosa Freedman at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. Photo: Courtesy.
From left, MK Sharren Haskel, former UNRWA legal adviser James G. Lindsay, Mindset-PCS managing director Ophelie Namiech and University of Reading Professor Rosa Freedman at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. Photo: Courtesy.

Israel can prevent UNRWA from operating in the Gaza Strip, and should be using this time of international spotlight on the U.N. aid organization due to its terror ties to plan for its closure, a former legal adviser to the agency said on Sunday.

James G. Lindsay’s unequivocal remarks made at a Knesset session discussing alternatives to UNRWA came as Australia joined Canada, Sweden and the E.U. in lifting funding freezes on the main Palestinian aid agency even before the U.N.’s own investigation of the organization is completed.

“This current time of maximum pressure on UNRWA should be used by both donor nations and host nations to demand reforms of UNRWA and prepare plans for its eventual dissolution,” Lindsay, a former legal adviser and general counsel to UNRWA, told a special session of the bipartisan Knesset Caucus: UNRWA: The Day After.

He said that while the agency “will not disappear overnight,” the chances of seeing that happen are greater now than at any time in the past, and need to be seized upon.

“The window of opportunity is beginning to close, cautioned Knesset member Sharren Haskel. “More and more countries will resume their funding to UNRWA if the Israeli government does not act.”

Haskel has been a leading parliamentary voice in calling for UNRWA’s dissolution and chairs the caucus, which hosted a variety of international aid experts to discuss alternatives to the organization.

“Many countries around the world agree that UNRWA is no good, and we need to show them what the other alternatives are,” she said.

A bombshell Israeli intelligence report, shared with the U.S. administration, showed that dozens of UNRWA employees actively participated in the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7, and that the agency has 450 “military operatives” from Hamas and other terrorist groups on its payroll.

The intel prompted 18 nations, led by the United States and Germany, UNRWA’s biggest donors, to suspend contributions to the agency totaling $438 million, or more than half of this year’s expected funding.

However, several countries, voicing concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, have since resumed their donations. The U.S., which provides about 30% of UNRWA’s budget, has frozen its donations, something that may become permanent in the wake of congressional legislation.

The ideas raised at Sunday’s Knesset hearing included working with a variety of other international humanitarian aid organizations on the ground in Gaza, reforming UNRWA and replacing it altogether.

MK Sharren Haskel (second from left) chairs the Knesset Caucus: UNRWA: The Day After hearing in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. Photo: Courtesy.

UN pushback

Lindsay, who worked at the organization between 2000 and 2007 after serving as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, said that reforms he had proposed a decade and a half ago, including vetting UNRWA’s staff and beneficiaries for terrorists and eliminating antisemitic and anti-Israel materials from its educational curricula, fell on deaf ears.

“Fifteen years later, the reforms I and others have urged on UNRWA are still unwelcome and UNRWA is unfixed,” Lindsay said.

He noted that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who is leading the defense of UNRWA, has reportedly told other U.N. organizations—including the World Food Program and UNESCO—that they should refuse to accept any funding or responsibilities that would come at UNRWA’s expense.

“The secretary-general, apparently fearing UNRWA’s imminent demise, is asking other UN organizations not to help Palestinians in order to force donor nations to fund UNRWA, or let Palestinians suffer,” Lindsay said.

The organization’s former legal adviser cited three ways to shutter UNRWA—a U.N. General Assembly decision, which, he said, was in practice a non-starter; an end to international donations, likely led by the U.S. and several key nations; and for Israel as the host nation to refuse UNRWA access to areas under its jurisdiction.

Lindsay noted that while many countries which froze their aid will likely resume it amid UNRWA assurances of corrective actions, the U.S. position is critical in closing down the agency.

“The possibility exists that some donor nations, probably led by the US, could defund and thus, in whole or in part end UNRWA, particularly if alternative ways to provide aid to needy Palestinians can be found,” he said.

Zlatko Zigic, who served as a senior official at the U.N. Migration Agency from 1997-2017, including as chief of diplomatic mission in Moscow and regional coordinator for Central Asia, told the Knesset members, “Contrary to the position of the U.N. secretary-general, UNRWA is very much replaceable and it is absolutely essential to replace UNRWA.

“We have to do it now because the window of opportunity [to make such a change] is closing,” Zigic said.

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