The UN’s Palestinian Aid Controversy: What’s at Stake

In Brief

The UN’s Palestinian Aid Controversy: What’s at Stake

The leading UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees is engulfed in allegations that twelve of its employees were involved in the Hamas attacks on southern Israel. The agency faces severe funding cutbacks, with huge consequences for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. 

Why is the UN aid agency for Palestine refugees in crisis? 

In late January 2024, Israel provided the U.S. government with a dossier of twelve employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) who were involved in Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attacks on southern Israel. The agency immediately fired ten of the employees named, and two others were confirmed dead, UNRWA said. Following the initial allegations, the Israeli military, known as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), accused additional staffers and said that Hamas used UNRWA-run schools, offices, and other facilities to plan and execute the October 7 attacks and subsequent war. By the end of January, around a dozen countries had suspended their aid to UNRWA. The United States was the first country to pause aid to UNRWA as investigations of allegations began, and in March, American lawmakers issued a one-year ban on U.S. aid to the agency. Countries including Germany, the second-largest donor to UNRWA after the United States, followed suit with bans tied to the results of the investigation, which will be made public in April. 

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A graphic showing that the US funding cut could remove almost a third of UNRWA's government funding

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Israel’s accusations are being examined in separate probes by a group of independent investigators and by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which said it has yet to receive evidence from Israel to support the allegations. UNRWA reported in early March that Israeli authorities had coerced several of its employees into falsely stating the UN agency’s link to Hamas. UNRWA released a report detailing the ill treatment of several employees detained by the Israeli army. When asked about the accusations of coercion, a spokesperson for the Israeli military said that it “acts in accordance with Israeli and international law to protect the rights of the detainees.”

According to UNRWA, more than one million of the 1.4 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip rely on UNRWA food assistance. If pauses to UNRWA funding continue through May, the agency could be forced to cease operations, after which no other organization could easily take its place. “UNRWA is the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said following the initial suspensions. UN humanitarian affairs leader Martin Griffiths has urged that decisions to withhold funds should be revoked, as Australia, Canada, and Sweden have done. But UN-backed food security projections show that Gaza still faces likely famine, even with funds restored. During a UN Security Council meeting on January 31, 2024, Guterres also stated that UNRWA is working in Gaza “even as its own staff are being killed, injured, and displaced.” Since the beginning of the war, more than 150 UNRWA staff members have been killed.

Why is Gaza dependent on UNRWA?   

On December 8, 1949, UN Resolution 302 (IV) established UNRWA to carry out relief for Palestinian refugees displaced by what the Palestinians call the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) or what Israelis refer to as the War of Independence. Nearly seven hundred thousand Palestinians were displaced and fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, or were internally displaced in the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA served hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees when it began operating in 1950 and it has since provided assistance to four generations of refugees and descendants of male Palestinian refugees [PDF]. UNRWA has continued to operate because the “Palestine refugee problem” has yet to be resolved. The guidelines for who can claim assistance from UNRWA are strict, and clearly lay out qualifications and disqualifications.

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Palestinians examine the damage to the UNRWA buildings in Gaza City.
Palestinians examine the damage to the UNRWA buildings in Gaza City. Omar Ishaq/picture alliance/Getty Image

Gaza’s heavy reliance on UNRWA is rooted in several factors. Of the numerous UN organizations that operate in Gaza, UNRWA is the only UN agency that provides direct services to Palestinian refugees; it also employs more than thirteen thousand people in the enclave alone.

Considered a temporary institution upon its establishment, UNRWA now serves as the primary provider of shelter, food, water, and employment for many Palestinians. In addition to preventing the risk of famine through its delivery of essential aid, UNRWA provides mattresses, hygiene kits, blankets, and vaccines for children against childhood diseases such as measles and mumps.  

More on:

Palestinian Territories

Middle East

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Humanitarian Crises

Where does it operate?

UNRWA operates in countries and territories in the region that have housed Palestinian refugees since 1948—Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. UNRWA employs approximately thirty thousand people, and the agency has two headquarters (one in Jordan’s capital, Amman, and another in the Gaza Strip).

The Palestinian refugee crisis has existed for more than seventy-six years, and UNRWA’s operations provide Palestinians with necessary services that host countries cannot or will not offer to them. In Lebanon, for example, the government is already struggling with overcrowded classrooms, a financial crisis, and political malaise. In such circumstances, UNRWA provides Palestinian refugees—many of whom still live in camps established in 1948—with health care, food, shelter, and schools. UNRWA also continues to operate in Syria to serve the remaining Palestinian refugees there who experience food insecurity because of the country’s civil war. UNRWA’s operations are vital to the survival of Palestinian refugees in their host states and territories, where many cannot own property, remain stateless, and are limited in job prospects.

Where are funds distributed?

UNRWA receives voluntary support from UN member states and regional blocs such as the European Union. This support totals approximately 89 percent of the financial contributions made to the agency. In 2022 alone, UNRWA received nearly $1.2 billion worth in pledges, including aid from the UN Secretariat in support of international staff. The United States is the largest donor to UNRWA.

Before the Israel-Hamas war broke out, much of UNRWA’s funding was directed at education, including running schools for more than five hundred thousand children. In 2020 alone, more than half of UNRWA’s programming budget of $806 million went towards education for school-aged children, while 15 percent was allocated to health services, 6 percent for relief and social services, and 4 percent for infrastructure and refugee camp improvements.

Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief.

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