The controversy surrounding Unrwa shows no sign of abating. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees has been in turmoil since it announced on Friday, January 26, that it had fired nine of its employees whom Israel accused of being involved in the October 7 attacks. Several countries, led by the United States, have announced the suspension of their funding for this agency until an investigation is completed. The case was dropped shortly after the International Court of Justice issued its opinion on Gaza, finding there was a risk of genocide and ordering more humanitarian aid to reach the besieged enclave. Johann Soufi, former director of the UNRWA legal office in the Gaza Strip, makes the connection. Interview.
Published on: January 28, 2024 – 9:10 p.m
RFI: UNRWA's announcement of sanctions against its employees was made on Friday based on information Israel provided to UNRWA. Friday was also the day the International Court of Justice issued interim measures amid the threat of genocide in Gaza. Is this coincidence a coincidence of timing?
John Sufi: I think we should be more than just surprised at this coincidence. It should be noted and acknowledged that the day there is a decision that judicially recognizes the risk of genocide in Gaza, well, there is this backfire that, I feel, in In a way it creates a distraction and brings a topic other than the crimes committed in the Gaza Strip into the public debate.
UNRWA has been a frequent target of Israeli criticism since the October 7 attacks and the start of Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.
Yes, but because they are part of a broader political project that consists of displacing or even deporting part or all of Gaza's population as much as possible. And as several Israeli officials have said, this project inevitably involves the neutralization or disappearance of UNRWA. These attacks, which have increased tenfold in recent weeks, are clearly part of this political project.
I firmly believe that it is now part of a dual strategy. The first is to discredit an institution that has been the main source of information for the international media, since there is no press agency authorized to enter the Gaza Strip and no international investigators authorized to return to Gaza.
I also think that the fact that the International Court of Justice used in its decision so extensively the statements of the Agency and its Commissioner General played an important role in the decision to attack Unrwa in this way, perhaps this time definitively. And that is why I have absolutely no doubt that this campaign must also be understood as a form of collective punishment of the agency and an attempt to deter the agency.
How should these suspensions of funding by signatory states to the Genocide Convention and Friday's order from the International Court of Justice be understood? ? Can states meet their obligations while suspending their funding of the most important humanitarian agency in Gaza? ?
I believe that the responsibility of these states today goes beyond symbolic, moral or political responsibility. In fact, the 1948 Convention obliges all states to prevent genocide when there is a real and serious threat. If we look today at the wording of the International Court of Justice's decision, which identifies in particular the risk of genocide given the catastrophic humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip and, in this context, a threat to the physical integrity of the population of the Gaza Strip, the suspension of this aid seems to me a potential one to be a violation of the obligations of these states with regard to the 1948 agreement.
So you are violating international law?
Yes, that is my feeling.
What control mechanisms are there regarding employees within Unrwa?
Unrwa employs 13,000 people, all of whom are subject to audit. First, your CV etc., but also your criminal record, are checked. I also remind you that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a list of all UN employees, which usually allows these organizations to raise suspicions or concerns about the profile of certain employees.
And subsequently, when violations of the UNRWA Code of Conduct or offenses of a potentially criminal nature are reported, there are investigation and sanction mechanisms in place; independent investigations within the authority and sanctions which, when the facts are established, are often extremely serious, including dismissal. And if the matter is of a criminal nature, it will be referred to the national authorities for legal prosecution. There are mechanisms in place both before and after the events that could constitute a crime, or at least a felony.
Furthermore, there is – at least for me when I worked for Unwra, but it is still very new – zero tolerance for any actions that involve violence, incitement to violence or behavior such as moral or sexual harassment. I personally had to lead sanctions proceedings against staff who were accused, for example, of posting content on Facebook that violated UNRWA regulations. I therefore have absolutely no doubt that the authority is determined to punish its employees immediately if it has credible information.
For further reading: The UN agency Unrwa has become involved in the conflict over Gaza