In Berlin

Harry Stopes

On Friday morning, three dozen people gathered outside the Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development in Berlin to demand a permanent end to German funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The protest was organised by the Deutsch-Israelische-Gesellschaft, which is funded in part by the German foreign ministry. The DIG president, Volker Beck, a former Green Party member of the Bundestag, gave an interview to journalists from Die Welt. Another organiser was handing out laminated placards.

The placards featured material said to have been shared by UNRWA staff in a Telegram group, or from textbooks used in UNRWA ‘terror schools’. An Arabic teacher had written ‘Israel’s time is over’ in the hours after the 7 October attack. A physics textbook, to illustrate a question about forces, used the example of someone firing a stone from a catapult at soldiers with guns. An Arabic textbook included the phrase ‘jihad is one of the gateways to paradise.’ A social studies textbook described Palestine as ‘the area from the Mediterranean in the west, to the river Jordan in the east, and from Lebanon and Syria in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba and Egypt in the south’. (The slogan ‘from the river to the sea’ is banned in Germany, though the ban may not be legally enforceable.) In the past, UNRWA have responded to similar accusations about school materials either by saying that inferences about support for terrorism come from misinterpretation or a failure to contextualise, or that the materials in question are not actually used in their schools.

The demonstrators’ argument for defunding UNRWA was twofold: first, that it is directly culpable for the violence of Hamas, with which it collaborates; second, that it indefinitely prolongs the ‘artificial’ problem of Palestinian refugees by perpetuating their status as refugees, rather than facilitating their integration into neighbouring countries. UNRWA is therefore ‘part of the problem, not part of the solution’. The allegation that twelve members of UNRWA staff had participated in the 7 October attack was ‘just the tip of the iceberg’, according to Beck. ‘There’s a terror tunnel under almost every UNRWA facility,’ another speaker said. UNRWA is ‘not about humanitarian help’ but ‘the direct support of terror’.

A third speaker contrasted ‘the so-called Palestinian refugees’ with those who fled to the Federal Republic from Eastern Europe after the Second World War. It was as if, instead of acquiring citizenship and integrating into their new homes, they had remained in refugee camps, he said, periodically firing rockets at Silesia. The implication was that, like a German speaker expelled from East Prussia to West Germany in 1948, a Palestinian driven into Lebanon the same year was in fact being returned ‘home’. There is, by this argument, no such person as a Palestinian. (The International Court of Justice disagrees.)

As well as disputing the refugee status of Palestinian victims of the Nakba, Beck also cast doubt on their numbers. Only 100,000 left their homes under duress, he said; the other 600,000 left because Arab states told them to do so, temporarily, on the understanding that they would return once those Arab states had defeated Israel. According to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, this version of events is ‘a myth invented by the Israeli foreign ministry – there was no such call.’

In the days before the demonstration, both Channel 4 News and the Financial Times said that there was ‘no evidence’ in Israel’s dossier of accusations against the twelve UNRWA staff members. CBC reported last Wednesday that evidence had not been provided to Canadian government officials.

At a press conference on 29 January, a journalist asked a foreign ministry spokesperson if the German government had seen an intelligence dossier that, according the New York Times, the Israelis had provided to the US government. The spokesperson said they had not, but suggested that UNRWA’s decision to sack the accused staff was an indication that ‘credible findings’ must have been presented to them. He also said that as a matter of course he couldn’t go into details on intelligence reports that Germany might have received.

The UN have since said that they have not received evidence from Israel. Last Thursday, I asked the German foreign ministry whether they had been provided with evidence to substantiate and confirm the allegations against the UNRWA staff; whether they had taken steps to evaluate and verify them before deciding to stop funding the agency; and whether, to the best of their understanding, the German government had received documentation that had not been discussed in Channel 4’s coverage of the dossier. The ministry’s reply did not directly respond to my questions but said that they welcomed the independent investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. Over the weekend, the German media had wall-to-wall coverage of the IDF’s announcement that it had found a Hamas tunnel under an UNRWA building in Gaza City.

The German government has repeatedly expressed its concern for civilians in Gaza – the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said on Saturday that ‘the suffering in Rafah is unfathomable’ – while continuing to supply arms to Israel. At the anti-UNRWA demonstration on Friday, Volker Beck said that ‘nobody wants the people in Gaza to go hungry or thirsty, or to be without medicine.’ (In the past he has expressed a willingness to instrumentalise such deprivation, telling Welt last month that ‘we should, as a condition, link the delivery of aid more closely to the release of hostages: we have to increase the pressure.’)

Echoing the German government line, Beck said that other NGOs and UN agencies could take over the provision of aid from UNRWA. This is not the view of the UN, or international charities such as Action Aid, which called the decision to cut UNRWA’s funding an ‘outrageously irresponsible’ act of ‘collective punishment’. If donor countries ‘withdraw their support now’, the charity said, ‘the already dire humanitarian crisis will escalate into a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.’