ONE day back in 2002 while working as a correspondent based in Jerusalem, I went to report on the immediate aftermath of a Palestinian suicide bomb attack in a busy marketplace in the city.

As ever, it was a grisly scene, and while there, an angry Israeli spokesman for the Government Press Office (GPO), whom I had met numerous times, was pulling no punches in denouncing not only those responsible, but those in the global community who he deemed complicit in appeasing them.

“As long as the Palestinians’ position is accepted by Europe, this is going to continue. Israel is not going to behave just to be liked by the Europeans or lay down and play dead,” the spokesman told me, while nearby, volunteers of Israel’s ZAKA community emergency response team sifted for the remains of the bomb victims.

Berating whatever country or organisation he felt “appeased Palestinian terrorism”, the spokesman’s ire eventually turned to what by then had become a familiar focus for Israeli condemnation – the United Nations Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA.

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On this occasion, the accusation he levelled at UNRWA was of turning a blind eye to Palestinian weapons stored in its food warehouses.

I recount this story simply to make the point that Israel’s bitter relationship with UNRWA is anything but new – even if you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise given some of the recent commentary from certain politicians here in the UK and elsewhere.

With a number of Western countries having now suspended funding to the UN body amid allegations that a dozen UNRWA workers were complicit in the Hamas-led attacks on October 7, a flurry of reaction – some condemnatory, some supportive – has been thrown into the debate over the humanitarian agency’s role.

This has certainly generated a lot of heat but cast very little light on what is not only a bitter historic relationship between Israel and UNRWA, but also a complex, sometimes nuanced and, dare I say it, occasionally interdependent one too.

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To begin with, let’s get a few of the more uncomfortable facts straight. The first of these is that while some within Israel’s corridors of power have been gunning for UNRWA over decades, others have recognised the logistical necessity of its existence.

The views among the detractor camp can be summed up in the recent words of Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz, who claims that UNRWA “perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza”.

As an editorial in the pan-Arab online news outlet The New Arab rightly points out, that chilling phrase, “perpetuates the refugee issue”, could easily be interpreted as meaning that Katz and his ilk want rid of UNRWA because it is allowing Palestinians to live and multiply.

To some, this might be considered the language of genocide, and given that UN experts are already warning that attempts to defund Gaza could indeed be violating the Genocide Convention, language like this matters.

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Among Israel’s right-wing coalition government, those sharing Katz’s view that UNRWA “will not be part of the day after” plan for Gaza are in ready supply. In common, they sense too that they will never get a better opportunity than right now to cast UNRWA into oblivion.

So much then for the UNRWA opponents and detractors, but then alongside them, there also exists a more pragmatic view in some Israeli circles recognising that in the absence of any “day after” Gaza plan, the agency remains an unavoidable necessity – warts and all.

It’s not that such Israeli “supporters” of UNRWA consider it ideal, far from it, but they are pragmatic enough to know that calling for an agency this size to be defunded or cancelled is both short-sighted and totally unrealistic.

As Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer starkly reminded in his Haaretz column a few days ago, after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), UNRWA is the biggest employer in the Gaza Strip. Given this prominence and the fact that it employs 13,000 people and is responsible for the wellbeing of millions, it would be naive to think that Hamas does not have some presence within its ranks.

“If UNRWA having active Hamas members among its employees is a criterion for denying funds, they really didn’t need to wait for Lazzarini’s statement,” observed Pfeffer, referring to the Western response to UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini’s announcement that the agency was terminating the contracts of those employees deemed to be associated with Hamas.

The west has likely known

The fact is that just like the Israeli authorities themselves, UN officials, Western governments, diplomats and intelligence officials have doubtless long been aware of a Hamas presence in UNRWA and have lived with it because the agency was doing what needed to be done in terms of sustaining millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Only now have such governments and officials felt compelled to act when Israel brought what was already long known into the open, embarrassing them with their support for UNRWA.

It’s not then that the Israelis have suddenly “uncovered” this alleged Hamas presence, but more that it represents its response to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) order that Israel restore vital provisions and scale up aid to Gaza as part of a series of measures to prevent genocide in the enclave. As the saying goes, it’s all about timing.

For years, after all, the Israeli authorities under the auspices of the Unit for the Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, have worked closely with UNRWA.

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Are we really supposed to believe that only now have they become aware of some Hamas infiltration and felt the need to share it with their Western allies who help fund the agency?

None of this, it should be said, is to overlook the problems within UNRWA, which must urgently be addressed. But the inescapable fact is that Israel is not about to suspend its ties with UNRWA, much as some hardliners within the Netanyahu government coalition would like nothing better.

The argument they put forward that UNRWA gives Hamas the oxygen it needs and frees up the militants to fund its hostilities with Israel is of course not going to go away.

However, the fact remains that in the absence of any long-term plan for addressing the humanitarian needs in Gaza or its administration in whatever shape or form that takes after the fighting subsides, Israel needs UNRWA just as Gazans need the agency’s support like never before.

To put this another way, short of some rapid and radical rethink that provides a substitute for UNRWA, there is no alternative for now.