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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 recognized camps, and UNRWA’s services are located in or near these areas.

UNRWA is unique because of its responsibility and commitment 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% of UNRWA’s income for its core program budget.

Unlike other United Nations organizations 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.

Anti-Israel Activity

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, a 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 a lack of oversight of its facilities. On three separate occasions, Hamas rockets and guns were found stored in UNRWA-designated schools, and these weapons were returned to Hamas militants. The UNRWA condemned this discovery but did not comment on Hamas members firing rockets from its schools, parking lots, hospitals, and residential areas. On July 30, 2014, IDF troops discovered a terror tunnel that had been dug, beginning 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. Hamas exploits the UNRWA buildings for terror purposes regularly.

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 teachers’ 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, controlled 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, the 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 withhold an additional $45 million in food aid pledged the previous month in a separate agreement. 

Cutting  and Restoring U.S. Funding

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. Between 1950 and 2018, the United States contributed more than $6.2 billion to UNRWA.

Following exposure of textbooks used in UNRWA schools that are filled with hate speech, anti-Semitism, the glorification of jihad and erase Israel from their maps, the European Union Parliament announced it would condition support for the agency on the removal of incitement against Israel from the textbooks.

Almost at the same time, the Biden administration announced plans to restore funding to UNRWA. After announcing the intention to provide $150 million to the agency, an administration official said: “UNWRA has made clear their rock-solid commitments to the United States on the issues of transparency, accountability, and neutrality in all its operations.... And what neutrality means in the context of the United Nations is zero tolerance for racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”

UNRWA is suspected of collaborating with Hamas. “The UN has a zero contact policy with Hamas,” Washington director Elizabeth Campbell told the Wall Street Journal, acknowledging there were some exceptions to carry out essential services, including providing schooling, healthcare, microcredit, and other emergency assistance. “They do not interfere in any way with our operations.” UNRWA’s director, Matthias Schmale, however, admitted the agency had to work with Hama because it controls Gaza.

UNRWA facilities continue to be used by Hamas as shields. After Operation Guardian of the Walls, for example, the agency acknowledged a terror tunnel was built under one of its schools but it was prevented by Hamas from inspecting it or another suspected tunnel location.

In October 2021, UN Watch disclosed that UNRWA had reportedly suspended at least six employees after the NGO exposed more than 100 UNRWA educators and other employees who have publicly propagated violence and anti-Semitism on social media.

In a reversal of the previous administration’s position, the United States abstained from a United Nations draft resolution regarding assistance to Palestinian refugees that affirms the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel. This had been President Barack Obama’s position as well. Mills explained that the United States believes UNRWA provides “a vital lifeline to millions of Palestinians across the region” and had already provided more than $318 million to the agency. He said, “We were pleased to see language included in several of the resolutions that reflect our priorities in line with strengthening UNRWA. This language puts a stronger onus on the Agency and on UN leadership to demonstrate a renewed commitment to the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality, as well as provides a basis for strengthened agency oversight.”

During his visit to Israel in July 2022, President Biden announced an additional $200 million contribution to UNRWA, once again making the U.S. the largest donor.

New Reports Document UNRWA Bias

Two months before the 2022 UNRWA supplementary materials became available on Palestinian education websites, in November 2021, UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner-General, Leni Stenseth, said that UNRWA’s “commitment to neutrality is unwavering” and that it will intensify its continuous efforts in this regard. She added that UNRWA has “invested immense efforts in training personnel to promote their understanding of neutrality and the vital role it plays in their daily work and of their obligations in this regard.”

A survey by IMPACT-se of UNRWA-labeled study materials for 2022 produced by UNRWA’s educational staff in Gaza, however, “revealed that they contain material that does not comply with UN values.” Specifically, it said, “We found material that does not adhere to international standards and that encourages violence, jihad and martyrdom, anti-Semitism, hate, and intolerance, with overtly politicized language that violates both UN values and UNRWA’s neutrality policy.”

IMPACT-se found “texts that glorify waging war and sacrificing one’s life and blood to liberate the ‘motherland,’ which is described as the entirety of Mandatory Palestine.” One example “uses a poem to teach students that dying as martyrs is a ‘hobby’ and that peace-making is undesirable and a sign of weakness.” Another text for 5th-grade girls glorifies women “who sacrificed themselves and their children for the sake of Islam.”

Jews are portrayed as “inherently treacherous and hostile to Islam and Muslims.” In one example, the Jews are described as impure and accused of defiling the al-Aqsa Mosque. The establishment of Israel is referred to as a “major racist calamity.” In addition, “Israel is portrayed as the consequence of a global anti-Arab plot set up by European colonialism to divide the Arab world.”

Like Palestinian Authority textbooks, UNRWA-produced maps indicate all of Israel is “occupied territory” by replacing the Jewish state with Palestine. “Social studies exercises,” the report says, “imply that Israel is a colonial entity created by European colonialism to divide the Arab world.”

Israel is “accused of intentionally and maliciously mistreating Palestinian prisoners and their families and of attempting to erase Palestinian heritage and identity.” The Jewish state is referred to as “the Zionist Occupation,” “the Zionist Entity,” and “the Zionist Enemy.” Israel’s security barrier is called “the Racist Annexation Fence.”

In addition to problematic educational materials, UN Watch has documented that more than 100 UNRWA staff and school Facebook pages contain incitement to anti-Semitism and terrorism. One West Bank computer teacher who was given awards of appreciation endorsed Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. A Lebanon teacher posted on Facebook, “By Allah, anyone who can kill and slaughter any Zionist and Israeli criminal, and doesn’t do so, doesn’t deserve to live. Kill them and pursue them everywhere, they are the greatest enemy….All Israel deserves is death.” A Jordanian teacher posted a photo of masked Hamas terrorists holding submachine guns and called on Muslims to “fight against the Jews until a Jew will hide himself behind a stone or a tree, and the stone or the tree will say: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”

In December 2022, UNRWA discovered a tunnel used by terrorists under one of its schools. “The Agency protested strongly to the relevant authorities in Gaza to express outrage and condemnation of the presence of such a structure underneath one of its installations,” UNRWA said in a press statement.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a congressional committee in March 2023 that the State Department was closely monitoring UNRWA to ensure it is ensuring that its facilities and materials are not used in support of terrorism. “UNRWA provides needed services to the most desperate people among the Palestinians, education, and the fact that terrorists are victimizing them by turning their facilities into possible places where they might operate… is absolutely unacceptable,” she added.

In June 2023, the U.S. renewed its commitment to support UNRWA with the stipulation that “no contributions by the US shall be made to UNRWA except on the condition that [UNRWA] take all possible measures to assure that no part of the US contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training …or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.” On June 2, the U.S. announced it would contribute $153.7 million to UNRWA. Hamas denounced the agreement as “acquiescence to American pressure.”

A day later, AP reported that donors had promised $107 million for the organization at a donors conference, falling short of the $300 million UNRWA claimed it needed. It was unclear if the U.S. contribution was made separately and added to the amount raised at the meeting.

Donor Nations Suspend Funds

While the United States was increasing support for UNRWA, European nations began to scrutinize the Agency’s spending and activities more carefully. Germany, UNRWA’s largest donor over the last five years, contributing almost $1 billion, announced on November 7, 2023, that it will continue to freeze its entire aid budget for UNRWA’s operations in Gaza.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) released a report documenting support for the October 7 massacre among UNRWA teachers and other staff members.

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).
Zachary Keyser, “European Parliament raises issue with UNRWA textbooks promoting hate,” Jerusalem Post, (February 7, 2021).
“The Neutrality and Inviolability of UNRWA Installations Must be Respected at All Times,” UNRWA, (June 4, 2021).
Jessica Donati, “Gaza Relief Plan Tests U.S. Ability to Bypass Hamas,” Wall Street Journal, (June 4, 2021).
“EU to condition UNRWA funds on removing incitement from PA textbooks,” Ynet, (September 29, 2021).
“Ahead of Donor Conference, UNRWA Should Identify Teachers Suspended for Antisemitism,” UN Watch (October 27, 2021).
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Tovah Lazaroff, “US changes its UN vote from ‘no’ to ‘abstention’ on UNRWA affirmation,” Jerusalem Post, (November 10, 2021).
“UNRWA’s Teachers Of Hate,” UN Watch, (June 2022).
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“UNRWA discovers terrorist tunnel under Gaza school,” Jerusalem Post, (December 1, 2022).
Marc Rod, “Thomas-Greenfield discusses UNRWA oversight, reaffirms commitment to Israel in House hearing,” JewishInsider, (March 2, 2023).
Khaled Abu Toameh, “Hamas denounces UNRWA for ‘bowing’ to US pressure to renew funding,” Jerusalem Post, (June 4, 2023).
“UN agency for Palestinian refugees raises just $107M of $300M needed,” AP, (June 3, 2023).
“UNRWA Education: Textbooks and Terror” IMPACt-se, (November 2023)
“Germany announces freeze of all UNRWA aid in Gaza,” IMPACT-se, (November 27, 2023)