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What is UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency?

BACKGROUNDER | The United Nations–run organization providing aid to hundreds of ­thousands of Palestinians has been repeatedly accused of ties to terrorism

UNRWA workers distribute flour rations and other supplies in the Gaza Strip. Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images

What is UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency?
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A MEMBER OF Norway’s parliament on Feb. 1 said he was nominating the primary United Nations relief agency working in the Gaza Strip for the Nobel Peace Prize, citing the agency’s “long-term work to provide vital support to Palestine and the region in general.” But the agency, known as UNRWA—or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East—has also made recent headlines for its purported ties to terrorism. The UN General Assembly created UNRWA in 1949 to address the needs of 700,000 Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The number of refugees UNRWA serves has now ballooned to about 5.9 million in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank.

What does UNRWA do? The agency provides services including food, education, medical and ­mental health services, and microcredit. In Gaza, hundreds of thousands of people depend on UNRWA for daily basic needs. The agency also employs many local workers, training them to serve as teachers, supply movers, and ­emergency responders. About 90 percent of the agency’s funding comes from voluntary govern­mental donations.

How does UNRWA differ from other UN agencies? Unlike the UN’s other refugee organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, UNRWA does not resettle refugees. UNRWA was founded as a temporary organization, operating on a UN mandate renewed every three years. The agency says it will operate until a “just and durable solution” is developed for Palestinian refugees.

Does the agency have ties to terrorism? For years, watchdog groups including UN Watch have called attention to anti-Semitic and pro-­terrorist social media posts made by UNRWA employees. On Jan. 26, the agency announced it was investigating new Israeli claims that 12 employees were directly involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks. An Israeli intelligence dossier alleged that several UNRWA employees joined rampages on Israeli border towns and that an agency school counselor helped abduct an Israeli woman. The dossier also claimed that an additional 190 UNRWA employees, including teachers, were Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants—and that nearly 10 percent of the 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza have ties to terror organizations. The UN promised an internal investigation.

How have UNRWA donors responded? At least 15 countries, including top donors Germany and the United States, have halted funding to the agency. UN officials projected UNRWA would run out of money by the end of February due to the cuts. However, Spain and Portugal announced funding boosts, and Norway advanced its annual donation, citing worries that the agency’s collapse would further destabilize the Middle East.


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