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With UNRWA under fire, where should India stand?

India should continue to support the UNRWA, given the agency caters to one of the most vulnerable populations of the Global South, Palestinian refugees.
Last Updated 22 February 2024, 05:05 IST

In recent weeks, the international community has been rocked by allegations of involvement by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) staff members in the terror attack against Israel carried out on October 7. As a result, several countries have suspended their funding to the UNRWA, impacting close to half of its funding which enables crucial humanitarian support to Palestinians. Amidst this controversy, India finds itself at a crossroads, torn between its commitment to development partnership and its unwavering stance against terrorism.

India is often regarded as a key stakeholder in the Israel-Palestine conflict given it has historically maintained close ties with both parties. However, its response to the allegations against the UNRWA staff has been enigmatic. India increased its commitment to the UNRWA during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Palestine in 2018 from $1.25 million to $5 million. But at a recent press briefing by the Ministry of External Affairs, the spokesperson, in response to a question on whether India plans to make any changes in its contribution structure to the UNRWA, replied, “we have a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism. And in this regard, we are deeply concerned at the allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in October 7 terror attacks.”

This ambiguous response which evaded the question about the UNRWA funding restructuring highlights the delicate balance India has to strike between its development partnership approach and no-tolerance to terrorism policy.

With the UNRWA facing significant funding cuts, India's role as a development partner becomes even more crucial. Through its reformed multilateralism agenda at the UN and initiation of the Voice of Global South Summit, New Delhi has projected itself as the torch bearer of Global South, ensuring that the world works toward reducing inequities that exist between the Global North and the Global South. Keeping this in mind, India should continue to support the UNRWA, given the agency caters to one of the most vulnerable population of the Global South, Palestinian refugees.

India should recall that when it abstained from a ceasefire resolution at the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session of October 27, its position as the voice of Global South was widely questioned given it was one of the very few from this part of the world to have not voted in favour of a ceasefire that aimed to stop the mass killings of Palestinians by Israel. Thus, to maintain its semblance as the voice of Global South, India should not only continue supporting the UNRWA but also call for support from other global partners to ensure humanitarian aid reaches Palestinians.

On the question of the UNRWA, New Delhi needs to remember that all this while when Israeli aggression was being carried out against UN personnel and humanitarian workers, India chose to neither put out a statement nor condone Israel’s actions. Thus, if India aims to take any action that is detrimental to the functioning of the UNRWA, provided that their staff members are found guilty, New Delhi will open itself up to criticism for not calling out Israel’s actions against humanitarian organisations and distancing itself from the UNRWA.

However, one remains hopeful that for India humanitarian principles are of utmost importance. This was highlighted when India chose to vote in favour of a cessation of hostilities at the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session of December 12. That time it did not dismiss the terror attacks carried out against Israel, however, New Delhi was cognisant of the largescale humanitarian crisis arising out of Tel Aviv’s military operations. India must continue its support to the UNRWA, working towards upholding humanitarian principles, no matter the outcome of the ongoing UN investigation against the alleged UNRWA staff.

As Israel considers discontinuing the UNRWA operations in Gaza, it suggests alternatives like the World Food Programme (WFP) or USAID. However, both lack the infrastructure to match the UNRWA's humanitarian aid capacity. If this proposal arises in the UNGA, India should, through its diplomatic prowess, advocate for the continuation of the UNRWA's operations. Unlike the WFP, which focuses primarily on food aid, and USAID, which may be influenced by the vested interests of Washington and Tel Aviv, the UNRWA provides comprehensive humanitarian support, essential for Gaza's population.

There is no doubt that striking a balance between India’s no-tolerance policy on terrorism and humanitarian-centric foreign policy is challenging, however, there is a clear precedent wherein New Delhi has given priority to upholding humanitarian principles above anything else. As the voice of Global South, it is India’s responsibility to sustain the UNRWA’s operations, not as a funder but strategically leveraging its diplomatic finesse, garnering support for the agency from New Delhi’s global partners and beyond.

(Arkoprabho Hazra is a manager, Aakhya India. X: @ArkoprabhoH)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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(Published 22 February 2024, 05:05 IST)

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