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

How Many Refugees?
Arab States Prefer Palestinians Remain Refugees
Anti-Israel Activity
Teaching Hate in Schools
Cutting  and Restoring U.S. Funding
New Reports Document UNRWA Bias
Donor Nations Suspend Funds
UNRWA’S Ties to Terrorists


Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, the General Assembly voted on November 19, 1948, to establish the United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees (UNRPR) to dispense aid to the Palestinian refugeesGeneral Assembly resolution 302 (IV) replaced UNRPR with UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) on December 8, 1949, to substitute public works for direct relief and promote economic development while expecting the remaining assistance provided by the Arab governments.

The Agency began operations on May 1, 1950.

UNRWA is known for assisting Palestinian Arabs; however, its mandate is to support “Palestine Refugees.” The Agency defined a refugee as “a needy person, who, as a result of the war in Palestine, has lost his home and his means of livelihood.” According to the UN:

In Israel, the Agency has provided relief to two types of refugees, Jews who fled inside the borders of Israel during the fighting, and Arabs displaced from one area in Palestine to another. Jewish refugees at first numbered 17,000, but, during the current summer, all but 3,000 of these have been absorbed into the economic life of the new State.

Unlike the Arab states, which refused to solve the refugee issue by resettling the Palestinian Arabs, Israel willingly accepted refugees within its borders. In August 1950, the UN reported that 27,000 people in Israel had claimed refugee status, but the Israeli government requested that relief distribution be discontinued because it was assuming responsibility for them.

How Many Refugees?

In 1952, the UN defined refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict“ (UNRWA). Given that definition and the UN mediator’s estimate, UNRWA should have been responsible for fewer than 400,000 refugees.

The war was more than 70 years ago. That means infants at that time would be in their 70s today. Anyone over 18 would be in their 90s. According to the CIA, the life expectancy of Palestinians in the West Bank is 76 years. It would have been lower in the early decades after the war. Today, less than 4% of the population of the West Bank is over 65. Given these statistics, the vast majority of refugees are probably deceased, and UNRWA is no longer needed.

So how does UNWRA justify its existence?

The agency redefined “refugee” to include descendants. According to Jay Sekulow:

In 1965, UNRWA changed the eligibility requirements to be a Palestinian refugee to include third-generation descendants and, in 1982, it extended it again, to include all descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, regardless of whether they had been granted citizenship elsewhere. This classification process is inconsistent with how all other refugees in the world are classified, including the definition used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the laws concerning refugees in the United States.

The UNRWA website falsely claims that its definition is the same as that of the UNHCR. When columnist Melanie Phillips asked if the UNHCR automatically transferred refugee status to the descendants of refugees, however, she was told that was not true.

If we accept the UNRWA definition, each original refugee would have an average of 9.5 descendants. That has allowed UNRWA to claim the need to provide services to 5.9 million Palestinians.

Also, according to UNRWA’s expanded definition, “the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found” (emphasis added). Solutions to the refugee problem have been found; however, the Arab states and the Palestinians have rejected them.

Arab States Prefer Palestinians Remain Refugees

No one expected the refugee problem to persist after the 1948 War. John Blandford Jr., the director of UNRWA, wrote in his November 29, 1951 report that he expected the Arab governments to assume responsibility for relief by July 1952. Moreover, Blandford stressed the need to end relief operations: “Sustained relief operations inevitably contain the germ of human deterioration.” In 1952, the UNRWA set up a fund of $200 million to provide homes and jobs for the refugees, but it went untouched.

Meanwhile, Jordan was the only Arab country to welcome the Palestinians and grant some citizenship (Gazans were excluded). King Abdullah considered the Palestinian Arabs and Jordanians one people. 

Although demographic figures indicated ample room for settlement in Syria, Damascus refused to accept any refugees, except those who might refuse repatriation. Syria also declined to resettle 85,000 refugees in 1952–54, though it had been offered international funds to pay for the project. Iraq was also expected to accept many refugees but proved unwilling. Likewise, Lebanon insisted it had no room for the Palestinians.

After the 1948 War, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and its more than 200,000 inhabitants but refused to allow the Palestinians into Egypt or permit them to move elsewhere. Saudi Arabian radio compared Egypt’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza to Hitler’s rule in occupied Europe.

Sir Alexander Galloway, the former head of UNRWA in Jordan said in 1952, “The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”

Little has changed in succeeding years. Arab governments have frequently offered jobs, housing, land, and other benefits to Arabs and non-Arabs, excluding Palestinians. For example, Saudi Arabia chose not to use unemployed Palestinian refugees to alleviate its labor shortage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recruiting workers from Asia instead.

The situation grew even worse in the wake of the 1991 Gulf WarKuwait, which employed large numbers of Palestinians but denied them citizenship, expelled more than 300,000 Palestinians. “If people pose a security threat, as a sovereign country we have the right to exclude anyone we don’t want,” said Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States Saud Nasir al-Sabah. This expulsion drew no media attention, provoked no UN resolutions condemning Kuwait, and was ignored by pro-Palestinian activists.

Today, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not have social and civil rights, are prevented from owning property, and have limited access to public health or educational facilities. The majority relies entirely on UNRWA for education, health, and social services. Considered foreigners, Palestinian refugees are prohibited by law from working in most skilled professions, including medicine, law, and engineering.

The Palestinian refugees held the UN responsible for ameliorating their condition; nevertheless, many Palestinians were unhappy with their treatment by their Arab brethren. Some, like Palestinian nationalist leader Musa Alami, were incredulous: “It is shameful that the Arab governments should prevent the Arab refugees from working in their countries and shut the doors in their faces and imprison them in camps.”

Most refugees, however, focused their discontentment on “the Zionists,” whom they blamed for their predicament rather than the vanquished Arab armies.

UNRWA had little chance of success because it sought to solve a political problem using an economic approach. By the mid-1950s, it was evident neither the refugees nor the Arab states were prepared to cooperate on the large-scale development projects foreseen initially by the Agency as a means of alleviating the Palestinians’ situation. The Arab governments and many of the refugees were unwilling to contribute to any plan that could be interpreted as fostering resettlement. 

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 5.9 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.

Teaching Hate in Schools

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. 

Following that testimony, UNRWA pledged that April to modify the curricula in its schools and remove materials that compromised the organization’s required political neutrality. For example, UNRWA said it would remove maps of Palestine from the river to the sea, a reference saying “Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Palestine,” and the terms “the occupation,” “occupation soldiers,” “the prisoners,” and “the separation fence” from math or Arabic exercises.

The proposed changes in the UNRWA curricula provoked a storm of protest from the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, some UNRWA employees, and Arab members of the Knesset. The PA Education Minister Sabri Saidam declared that Palestinians want “education that will create liberation” from the “occupation.” Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi said, “it is the right of Palestinians under occupation to incite against it,” and Knesset member Hanin Al-Zo’abi insisted that “inciting against the occupation and its crimes is not just a right, but a human obligation.” Hamas’s Refugee Affairs division director, Dr. ‘Issam ‘Adwan, called the curriculum changes “a political crime.”

In a February 2018 update study, Aaron Groiss reported that books used by UNRWA, published by the PA since 2016, “are generally more radical than their predecessors.” The new books, for example, “omit the few references that existed in the older ones to the Jewish presence in the country in antiquity.” The newer books also demonized Israel and Jews in subjects unrelated to the conflict, such as physics, chemistry, biology, and vocational education.

Cutting  and Restoring U.S. Funding

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. 

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 has 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.

U.S. contributions to UNRWA are subject to various legislative conditions and oversight measures. For example, “No contributions by the United States shall be made to [UNRWA] except on the condition that [UNRWA] take[s] all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”

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.

UNRWA’S Ties to Terrorists

At the end of January 2024, Israel submitted a private complaint to UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini accusing 13 members of the staff in Gaza of participating in the October 7, 2023, massacre of Israelis by Hamas terrorists.

The Wall Street Journal reported that seven of the UNRWA staff involved were school teachers. Six workers were part of the assault, two helped kidnap Israelis, two were tracked to the vicinity where Israelis were murdered, and others coordinated logistics for the assault, including procuring weapons.

Lazzarini immediately fired nine of the staff members. Another was dead, and the identity of the two others was being clarified. An investigation was launched into the behavior of UNRWA staff.

“Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Austria, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Finland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Iceland, Estonia, and Japan announced they were suspending their funding of UNRWA. The EU called for an urgent audit and said it was reviewing funding.

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan called on all donor states to suspend their support.

Guterres urged donor countries not to suspend funding. “While I understand their concerns – I was myself horrified by these accusations – I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations.”

After the initial revelation about UNRWA staff participating in the massacre, the Wall Street Journal obtained an intelligence report that said roughly 10% of its 12,000-person Gaza staff have ties to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Nearly half of all UNRWA employees had close relatives associated with the terrorists.

The report also said Hamas had stolen more than $1 million worth of UNRWA supplies since October 7.

“UNRWA’s problem is not just ‘a few bad apples’ involved in the October 7 massacre,” a senior Israeli government official told the Journal. “The institution as a whole is a haven for Hamas’ radical ideology.”

The accusations fueled opposition to UNRWA in Israel and the U.S. Congress, with growing numbers of officials calling for UNRWA to be dismantled and replaced by another organization, most likely the UNHCR, which is responsible for all other refugees.

Further evidence of UNRWA complicity was exposed when the IDF discovered a tunnel underneath UNRWA headquarters on February 10, 2024, that had a data center linked to the building’s electricity.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commissioned an internal investigation and a separate independent review. The credibility of the investigations was called into question after the Wall Street Journal reported that “at least two of the three agencies selected to conduct that independent review have made statements aligning themselves against Israel or defending UNRWA.”

Britain, meanwhile, said it wants an “absolute guarantee” that UNRWA will not employ anyone willing to attack Israel before it restores funding.

Israeli intelligence subsequently determined that 30 UNRWA employees participated in the 10/7 massacre, 440 were active in Hamas’s military wing, 2,000 others were operatives but not part of the military wing, and 7,000 had a first-degree relative in Hamas. Rather than a handful of bad apples, the analysis suggested that roughly 9,500 (80%)  have a Hamas connection.

Nevertheless, Canada and Sweden decided to resume funding UNRWA in mid-March.

Sources: UNRWA.
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