Israel, South Africa and the problem with UNRWA

In the weeks since the provisional ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on South Africa’s genocide claim against Israel, unforgiving attention has been focused on the trustworthiness, or otherwise, of one of the four United Nations entities on whose evidence the court relied.

Sara Gon 
In the weeks since the provisional ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on South Africa’s genocide claim against Israel, unforgiving attention has been focused on the trustworthiness, or otherwise, of one of the four United Nations entities on whose evidence the court relied.

The entity in question is United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).1

The reliance on information from UNRWA was central to some of the arguments of Judge ad hoc Aharon Barak, chosen by Israel to sit on the ICJ application.

In his separate opinion, he strongly disagreed with the ICJ’s approach regarding “plausibility” and “intent”. The ICJ could order the provisional measures it did against Israel, but “only if it is satisfied that the rights asserted by the party requesting such measures are at least plausible”.

“In the present case the ICJ concluded, with scant evidence, that ‘the right of the Palestinians in Gaza to be protected from acts of genocide’ is plausible.”

Barak said that in South Africa’s case, there was no evidence comparable to that available to the ICJ in the seminal Gambia case. 2

To determine “plausibility” of rights in South Africa’s case, the ICJ relied on four sets of facts:

The figures for deaths, injuries and damage to infrastructure reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The ICJ omitted to mention that such figures come from the Ministry of Health of Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. They neither distinguished between civilians and combatants, nor between military objectives and civilian objects. It was difficult to draw any conclusions from them;
Statements made by the Under-Secretary-General of OCHA, a report of the World Health Organization and a statement by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA;
Statements of three Israeli officials3;
The views expressed by a group of Special Rapporteurs and the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Barak held that the statements by OCHA, the WHO and the Commissioner-General of UNRWA were insufficient to prove plausible intent.

“None of these statements mention the term genocide or point to any trace of intent.

“Furthermore, the ICJ is unaware of the underlying information or methodology used by the individuals who made these statements. This is in stark contrast to the evidence available to the ICJ in the Gambia case.”

Barak held that the ICJ not only did not base its decision on “evidence remotely” as onerous as that provided in the Gambia case, it based its decision on the facts presented by the four UN agencies, including UNRWA. More specifically it accepted the statement by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, on 13 January 2024.

But can UNRWA be trusted?

As at 30 January 2024, 16 countries and the European Union had suspended funding to UNRWA.4.

The amount suspended is just over $851million (R16 billion) – although it must be said that the US had already paid all but $300 million of the sum it owed to UNRWA for the year.

The reason for the suspensions? The Israeli government has alleged, and provided evidence to this effect, that 13 UNRWA employees were involved in the 7 October attacks perpetrated by Hamas against Israelis in 2023. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken described the reports as “highly credible”.5

UNRWA has announced that it is investigating the claims. Commissioner-General Lazzarini said in a statement: ‘The Israeli Authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel.’

Lazzarini said those found to be involved would be held accountable and criminally prosecuted: some had already had their contracts terminated. Where and by whom they would be prosecuted he does not say.

The outrage and suspensions resulted in a House of Representatives House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Hearing into the UNRWA on Tuesday 30 January 2024, which I’ll discuss further.

The history and purpose of UNRWA

UNRWA was founded in December 1949 as a temporary agency for 18 months, to rehabilitate the Arab refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

In December 1950, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was formed: it was mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.

But the UNHCR, which serves every refugee crisis in the world, does not serve the Palestinians. UNRWA continued to exist, dedicated to and serving Palestinian “refugees”.

Unlike the UNHCR, UNRWA’s mandate is “not conveniently stated in one place and must be derived from all relevant resolutions and requests”.6

“Although states may legitimately ask questions about the extent of UNRWA’s mandate, it is not their role to determine aspects of UNRWA’s mandate as a UN subsidiary organ. States do take part in the political process leading to resolutions of UN organs relevant to the Agency’s mandate and some states are members of the Agency’s Advisory Commission.”

UNRWA’s mandate to provide services has recently extended to the family members of registered refugee women married to non-refugee husbands.36 This extension is consistent with the General Assembly’s encouragement to make further progress in considering the needs and rights of women and children in its operations. The Agency’s approved budget has also referred to the extension. (June 1996)

In 2000, the then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, described UNRWA’s mandate rather sparely as follows: includes a development component carried out through its three main programmes, namely, education, health and relief and social services. In subsequent years the Agency’s mandate has been expanded by the Assembly, which has added other activities to its traditional programmes. Certain development activities were added. In this context, paragraph 5 of Assembly resolution 48/40 A of 10 December 1993 called upon the Agency “to make a decisive contribution towards giving a fresh impetus to the economic and social stability of the occupied territories”.

In effect, UNRWA has served as a de facto government for the infinitely expanding group of Palestinian refugees, wherever they may be.

What else is unique about UNRWA?

First, its mandate is renewed every three years by the UN General Assembly. The last renewal occurred on 12 December 2022:

“Assistance to Palestine Refugees – GA Resolution (A/RES/77/123) 6. Decides to extend the mandate of the Agency until 30 June 2026, without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 (III). 52nd plenary meeting 12 December 2022.”

Second, in 1965 UNRWA changed the eligibility requirements for Palestinian refugee status to include third-generation descendants. Then in 1982, it extended it again, to include all descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, regardless of whether they had been granted citizenship elsewhere.

This classification process is completely at odds with how all other refugees in the world are classified, including the definition used by the UNHCR.

General Assembly resolutions have encouraged the Agency to address the needs and rights of children and women in its operations since 2004 and 2007, respectively.

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Hearing into UNRWA 30 January 2024.7

By way of background, in 2018 former US President Donald Trump suspended the agency’s funding, claiming that its business model was “irredeemably flawed”.

Palestinian reactions to Trump were noteworthy, not because of possible detriments to education and health services; it was indignation and outrage that their ‘Right of Return’ was being hampered.

President Joe Biden reinstated aid to UNRWA, unconditionally, as soon as he came into office in 2021.

Yet, as Executive Director at United Nations Watch (UN Watch), Dr Hillel Neuer, explained to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing, UNRWA has a “systematic problem” of support for antisemitism and terrorism.

UN Watch is a Swiss non-governmental organisation whose mandate is to monitor the performance of the UN in terms of its own Charter. It is an accredited NGO with Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Its primary concerns are the just application of UN Charter principles in management reform, the UN and civil society, equality within the UN, and the equal treatment of member states. 

A considerable amount of its work is devoted to the disproportionate attention and unfair treatment applied by the UN to Israel over the years. This “illustrates how due process, equal treatment, and other fundamental principles of the UN Charter are often ignored or selectively upheld”.

What follows is a précis of Neuer’s presentation to the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee.

For years, UNRWA and its supporters have told the world that the agency performs life-saving work and that it provides Palestinian children with an education that promotes human rights, tolerance, equality and nondiscrimination. 

Of 13 000 UNRWA employees in Gaza, 1 200 are actual operatives within the political and military organisations of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. An estimated 6 000 UNRWA employees have close family members in these organisations. 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “horrified” to learn that members of his UNRWA staff were implicated in terrorism. But Guterres, Lazzarini, their predecessors, and their senior colleagues could not possibly have been shocked: for the past nine years UN Watch has been uncovering, publishing and submitting to the UN and to UNRWA evidence of widespread and systematic incitement to jihadi terrorism. Reports range from 10 to 200 pages in length. 

School subjects include praise for Adolf Hitler, and there have been calls by UNRWA teachers, school principals and other employees to slaughter Jews. 

Recent reports by UN Watch included:

November 2023 – A report on 20 teachers who celebrated the October 7 massacre;
March 2023 – UN Watch identified 133 UNRWA teachers and staff who promoted hate and violence on social media; 
June 2022 – A report, called “UNRWA's teachers of hate”, which included this FaceBook post by a teacher: “By Allah, anyone who can kill and slaughter any Zionist and Israeli criminal and doesn't do so, doesn't deserve to live. Kill them and pursue them everywhere. They are the greatest enemy. All Israel deserves is death.” 
UN Watch also sent reports to the UN in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. 

The UN never requested information and repeatedly refused written requests to meet to discuss the problem. They knew and “they simply chose not to act”. 

From the beginning the response to UN Watch was to attack it. Christopher Gunnis, former UNRWA spokesman, said on X (formerly Twitter) the following in response to the reports:

“I appeal to journalists, please don't turn UN Watch’s baseless allegations about anti-Semitism into a he-said, she-said story. It's a non-story. 

“UN Watch makes a fool of itself. Again, credibility dead in the water. Will anyone believe them?

“[I’m] interested to find out more about UN Watch's political and financial affiliations since its establishment.” 

UNRWA was not interested in the reasons for allegations of incitement to terrorism in June 2022, when they had to suspend six employees under pressure from the US.

Former UNRWA Deputy Commissioner General, Lenny Stenseth, informed donor states that, as she put it on her website: “The real intent of UN Watch is to destroy and not build, and to invite conflict, not build a lasting peace.” 

When Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the Secretary-General, was asked about UN Watch’s information, he replied on 1 January:

“I mean, UN Watch, they have a track record.” 

UNRWA has shown itself to be unable and unfit for a decade. 

UN Watch’s latest report ‘UNRWA 's Terrorgram’ documents a Telegram chat group of over 3 000 UNRWA teachers in Gaza that is replete with messages, photos and videos cheering and celebrating the massacre of 7 October.

From this, it emerges that:

Teachers celebrated the 7 October massacre and posted videos. One teacher praised the Hamas mujahideen (holy warriors) as they massacred, mutilated and raped Israelis; 
Teachers shared a message from Hamas urging Gazans to stay put and ignore Israeli messages to evacuate for their safety;
Teachers celebrated the Hamas terrorists: “May Allah keep their feet steady and guide their aim!”;
When a group member wondered how these “heroes” were brought up, a teacher replied: “They imbibed jihad and resistance with their mother's milk.” A few days later, this same teacher asked Hamas to execute their Israeli hostages;
A director of the Khan Younis Training Center called one of the Hamas attackers a “hero and a prince” while others said “(we need to) sculpt the date of October 7 in history as a great day.
Neuer said it was not a case of a “few bad apples”, as UNRWA have said:

“It's rotten to the core… the core problem of UNRWA, the very purpose of the agency, is to perpetuate the war of 1948, to send the message to Palestinians that the war of 1948 is not over. Don't use cement to build homes, hospitals and schools here in Gaza. Use it to build hundreds of miles of terror tunnels to tunnel into Israel, to invade Israel, to go back to what your homes are. That is the message of UNRWA. 

“We should not be surprised what happened on October 7, because that is the message that these Palestinians got for more than 70 years in UNRWA schools. UNRWA is a failure. We have to recognize what the Swiss foreign minister, Ignazio Cassie, said. This is a country historically that… supports the UN. He said the following. I quote: ‘UNRWA has become part of the problem. It supplies the ammunition to continue the conflict. By supporting UNRWA, we keep the conflict alive.”

UNRWA dismissed the testimony of a freed hostage who said he had been held captive by an UNRWA teacher; on social media UNRWA said the claims were “unsubstantiated”.

Neuer regarded the response as typical:

‘UN Watch had over several years brought to it and the world evidence of UNRWA teachers supporting jihadi terrorism throughout schools of UNRWA in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Jordan. UNRWA inevitably denied or downplayed this, to try to dismiss any concerns. It came as no surprise that UNRWA made an ad hominem attack on a credible journalist that the claim may amount to misinformation.”

In reference to the embedding of UNRWA staff in Hamas, Neuer cited a person elected to Hamas’ Political Bureau who was a senior official at UNRWA.

In 2017 UN Watch revealed that a teacher in Lebanon, who was suspended by UNRWA because he supported terrorism on Facebook, was embraced by the UNRWA teachers’ union. UNRWA defended the union leader, a principal at an UNRWA school, but later suspended him after being provided with “substantial information from Israel”. 

During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, UNRWA found weapons stockpiles at three of its schools. 

UNRWA’s systematic support for antisemitism and jihadi terrorism had been a badly kept secret for many years. UNRWA is embedded with Hamas or vice versa.

The West is also culpable: it has ignored much of UN Watch’s and other evidence, and entrenched foreign ministries and diplomatic officials have protected UNRWA. They’ve guaranteed that aid is not conditional on stopping the support for terrorism within UNRWA.

Neuer asked the US Congress not to just suspend aid, but to end its funding for good and to take the lead in dissolving an organisation riddled with incitement to hate, involvement in terrorism and the perpetuation of war.

UNRWA empowers a rejectionist ideology

Journalist and academic Dr Adi Schwartz, a former staff writer for Haaretz, is now a fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy.

Schwartz says in an article for Misgav:

“No other entity in the past 75 years has enabled, actualized, supported, fostered and empowered the Palestinian rejectionist ideology (the 'from the River to the Sea’ concept) as UNRWA has done. This ideology denies the basic legitimacy of the existence of a State of Israel, nurtures a perpetual refugee status of the majority of Palestinians, and demands a massive return of those ‘refugees’ into the State of Israel (referred to as the ‘Right of Return’). This ideology played a key role in the horrors of October 7.”

Schwartz says the real problem is its very existence. The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip should not have been treated as refugees in the first place; the provision of aid to Gazans should not have been tied to refugee status.

“UNRWA, which is funded by the international community at a cost of about one billion dollars every year, sends the Palestinians the exact opposite message from the one they should receive. Instead of conveying to them an unequivocal message that the world has no intention of supporting the Palestinian delusions to supplant Israel, the world is doing the opposite.”

Schwartz writes: “The messages conveyed by the mere fact of UNRWA’s existence, and naturally also through the education system and the diplomatic and public mantle provided to the Palestinians by the agency, are that the demand for Israel’s destruction is a legitimate one.”

(Education in the Palestinian Territories is too extensive a topic to cover here. See two reports on education in Palestinian Territories.8&9)

Schwartz argues that aid must not be associated with any political aspect of the conflict or with refugee status. The international community has provided aid to countries in recent years without tying that aid to refugee status.

Schwartz concludes that UNRWA must be dismantled, and international aid must be provided through other entities.“Past attempts to carry out reforms of UNRWA have failed – and for good reason. Such is the organisation’s very DNA, and it cannot be changed. Therefore, UNRWA          should have no role in a post-Hamas Gaza.”

The “Refugee Camps”

The “refugee camps” in Gaza and the West Bank are towns, which began in 1948 as camps to accommodate Palestinians fleeing Israel. They are neither refugee camps nor are these Palestinians refugees – they are Palestinians living in Palestine, dependent on the welfare of UNRWA.

Conferring this “refugee status” to over 75% of Gaza’s population, provides them with international endorsement of their belief that their true home is not in Gaza, but rather in Israel.

Latest discovery under UNRWA headquarters10

On 10 February the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) reported that a tunnel network 700 hundred metres long and 18 metres deep had been found; it runs partly under UNRWA's Gaza headquarters.

Army engineers took reporters from foreign news outlets through the passages of the tunnel.

Reporters entered a shaft next to a school on the periphery of the UN compound, descending to the concrete-lined tunnel. It took twenty minutes to reach a position beneath UNRWA’s Headquarters.

The tunnel revealed side-rooms with an office, steel safes, and a tiled toilet. One large chamber was packed with computer servers, another with industrial battery stacks.

The accompanying lieutenant-colonel said: ‘Everything is conducted from here. All the energy for the tunnels, which you walked through them are powered from here.

‘This is one of the central commands of the intelligence. This place is one of the Hamas intelligence units, where they commanded most of the combat.’

He said that Hamas appeared to have evacuated the tunnel, preemptively cutting off communications cables that, in an above-ground part of the tour, he showed running through the floor of the UNRWA Headquarters' basement.

UNRWA said it had vacated the headquarters on 12 October, five days after the war began, and was therefore ‘unable to confirm or otherwise comment’.

‘UNRWA ... does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises’, the statement said.

‘In the past, whenever (a) suspicious cavity was found close to or under UNRWA premises, protest letters were promptly filed to parties to the conflict, including both the de facto authorities in Gaza (Hamas) and the Israeli authorities.’

A lack of cellphone reception in the tunnel made geolocating it as being under UNRWA Headquarters impossible.


I wrote an article published in the IRR’s Daily Friend (26 November 2023) Inflammatory language smothers a solution to the Middle East conflict. (See note.3)

It provides just a glimpse of the decades of virulent antisemitism that has been pumped out by official Palestinian media, either under the Palestinian Authority or Hamas-controlled.

It is horrific and doesn’t remotely compare to the allegedly “genocidal” comments made by “three Israeli officials”, and presented by South Africa to the ICJ as grounds for its claim of genocide in Gaza, and accepted by the court as justification for its finding relating to a “plausible” risk.

I also briefly mention the same antisemitic propaganda in the curricula taught by UNRWA-run Palestinian schools.

Memri is one of the four organisations I mention which monitor what is addressed to Palestinians in Arabic by Palestinian media, in contrast to whatever official Palestinian media say in English to the outside world.

Watch these videos from Palestinian media to get a sense of the extent of indoctrination Palestinian children are exposed to, and at a very young age. It is plain that UNRWA’s role is devastating.

21 July 2022

[Embed video here]

29 November 2013

[Embed video here]

25 August 2010

[Embed video here]

Sara Gon is head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations


1. Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel) - 26 January 2024

2. Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar), Provisional Measures, Order of 23 January 2020, I.C.J. Reports 2020, p. 18, para. 43).

3. Sara Gon, Inflammatory language smothers a solution to the Middle East conflict

4. The USA, Germany, the EU, Japan, France, Switzerland, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands,                Australia, Italy, Austria, Finland, New Zealand, Iceland, Romania and Estonia.

As at 30/1/2024 their annual contributions were: USA $343.9m, Germany $202.1m, EU $114.1m, Japan $30.2m, France $28,9m, Switzerland $25.5m, Canada $ 23.7m, UK $21.2m, The Netherlands, $21.2m, Australia $ 13.8m, Italy $18m, Austria $8.1m, Finland $7.8m, New Zealand $560.8K, Iceland $558.7k, Romania $210.7k and Estonia $90K.

5. Press conference conducted by Israeli Government Spokesman, Eylon Levy from the National Public Diplomacy Directorate: the Prime Minister’s Office conducted on Tuesday 30 January. It goes into detail on much that is covered in this article. It can be found at

6.Lance Bartholomew, The Mandate of Unrwa at Sixty , Oxford Academic - Refugee                Survey Quarterly, 26 March 2010,

7. The full hearing can be found at

8. Anna Dickson, Nigel Walker, Julie Gill EU Review into Palestinian Schoo Textbooks, 25 June 2021,

9. IMPACT-se The New Palestinian Curriculum: By the Numbers Quantitative Analysis of the Current Palestinian Ministry of Education Curriculum, 3/9/, 2019,

10. Dylan Martinez, Hamas had command tunnel under U.N. Gaza headquarters, Israeli military says, Reuters, 10 February 2024