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UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA): History & Overview

Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was established by United Nations General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) of December 8, 1949, to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestinian refugees.

The Agency began operations on May 1, 1950. Originally envisaged as a temporary organization, in the absence of a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate.

UNRWA provides education, health, relief and social services to eligible refugees among the 4.8 million registered Palestinian refugees in its five fields of operations in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Arab Republic and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. More than 1.4 million refugees, around one third of the total, live in 58 recognised camps, and UNRWA's services are located in or near these areas.

UNRWA is unique because of its responsibility and committment to just one group of refugees, whereas all other refugee populations around the world fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states. The United States was the largest single donor to UNRWA in 2011, according to the organization’s website, with a total contribution of over $240 million, followed by the European Commission’s $175 million. These two sources accounted for about 42 per cent UNRWA’s income for its core program budget.

Unlike other United Nations organisations that work through local authorities or executing agencies, UNRWA provides its services directly to Palestinian refugees. It plans and carries out its own activities and projects, and builds and administers facilities such as schools and clinics. The Agency currently operates or sponsors over 900 installations with nearly 30,000 staff across the five fields. Because UNRWA services such as education and healthcare are the type of services normally provided within the public sector, the Agency cooperates closely with governmental authorities in the area of operations, who also provide some services to Palestinian refugees.

Despite its stated objective to bring protection for Palestinian refugees and build peace, UNRWA has repeatedly come under heavy fire for promoting or sponsoring anti-Israel events within its facilities. In 2013, video footage entitled "Camp Jihad" showed UNRWA summer camps inciting hostility to Israel among young Palestinians. “We teach the culture of the Nakba to campers,” emphasized Nasrin Bisharat, an UNRWA social worker at the Balata camp, in the video. “We try, on days like Nakba Day, to commemorate the Nakba in the school.”

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the following remarks before a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon:

I know that like me you know that the most important thing is to prepare our respective peoples for peace and in this regard, I’m sure you are going to look into the abuse of UNRWA camps in Gaza that have been used purportedly for peace camps, but actually to instill the culture of hatred and the ideas of destroying Israel amidst Palestinian children.  It’s very hard to habituate and prepare the next generation for peace when they’re told that Jews are the descendents of pigs and monkeys and that the Jewish State has no right to exist, so I trust that you will make sure that these abuses of U.N. goals and U.N. funds does not continue.

The UNRWA endured repeated scrutiny during Operation Protective Edge due to lack of oversight of it's facilities. On three seperate occasions Hamas rockets and guns were found stored in UNRWA designated schools, and these weapons were returned to Hamas militants.  The UNRWA of course condemned this discovery, but did not comment on Hamas members firing rockets from it's schools parking lots, hospitals, and residential areas.  On July 30, 2014, IDF troops discovered a terror tunnel that had been dug begining in a UNRWA medical clinic in Eastern Khan Younis.  While inspecting the surrounding area, Hamas operatives detonated twelve explosive devices that had been hidden in the walls of the medical facility, killing three Israeli soldiers.  The UNRWA buildings are exploited by Hamas for terror purposes on a regular basis. 

Accusations of corruption within the UNRWA are not new: in 2009 the UN halted aid to Gaza because Hamas "police" were stealing the materials.  According to a 2006 letter written to Condoleezza Rice from Congressmen Mark Kirk and Steven Rothman, "After an exhaustive review of the UN's own audit, it is clear UNRWA is wrought by mismanagement, ineffective policies, and failure to secure its finances. We must upgrade UNRWA's financial controls, management and enforcement of US law that bars any taxpayer dollars from supporting terrorists".  A reform program to address these widespread oversight issues and improve efficiency was supposedly implemented in 2007 but no results have ever been reported. 

Criticisms also include that the UNRWA is not preparing the Palestinian people for a self-governing and sustainable society.  The UNRWA has not erected any public civil institutions or provided any form of infrastructure to the people of the Gaza Strip, and critics claim that the program is creating a dependence on the UNRWA and that the Palestinian people are not being adequately prepared for a peaceful future.  Hamas sympathizers and members are on the payrolls of the UNRWA unions and in 2012 Hamas won a workers union election in the UNRWA. In 2012 the UNRWA in Gaza elected Hamas to all 11 seats in the UNRWA's teacher's union and to 14 out of 16 seats in the employees and service sector union.  The Center for Near East Policy Research published a report in mid 2014 that asserts the fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad control the UNRWA stations in Gaza. The terrorist organizations took control of the labor unions of the UNRWA and from there control the actions of the relief agency. According to this report:

Over the years, UNRWA has become a convenient surrogate for terrorist organizations, led by Hamas, which unrestrictedly dominates the UNRWA workers union, and its men — along with educators from the Islamic Jihad and other groups — are the ones who educate generations of descendants of Palestinian refugees about the values of jihad against Israel and all infidels.

On February 2, 2017, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, testified before the U.S. Congress presenting evidence of incitement to jihadi terrorism and anti-Semitism perpetuated by UNRWA teachers in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.  This evidence included Facebook posts by these teachers denying the Holocaust, celebrating Hitler, and encouraging their followers to take up arms against Jews.  To read the 133-page report published by UN Watch in February 2017, titled Poisoning Palestinian Children: A Report on UNRWA Teacher's Incitement to Jihadist Terrorism and Anti-Semitism, please click here.  

After weeks of internal debate as to whether to eliminate all UNRWA funding as punishment for opposition to President Trump’s policies, the Trump administration decided on January 16, 2018, that the U.S. would pledge $60 million to UNRWA programs. This is slightly less than half of what was expected, and according to administration officials the remaining $65 million would be held for future consideration. The following week the U.S. State Department announced that they would be withholding an additional $45 million in food aid pledged the previous month in a separate agreement.  

The Trump Administration announced on August 28, 2018, that it would be completely ending all funding to the UNRWA instead of just scaling back its contributions. The United States had provided the organization with approximately $350 million annually in recent years; more than one-quarter of the agency’s budget. 

Sources: UNRWA;
Prime Minister’s Office (August 16, 2013);
Lazar Berman, Palestinian kids taught to hate Israel in UN-funded camps, clip shows, Times of Israel (August 14, 2013);
Josh Rogin, Tillerson prevails over Haley in Palestinian funding debate, Washington Post, (January 16, 2018);
U.S. won't pay $45 million pledged for Palestinian food aid for now, Reuters, (January 19, 2018);
Colum Lynch, U.S. to End All Funding to U.N. Agency That Aids Palestinian Refugees, Foreign Policy, (August 28, 2018).