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The United Nations’ Palestinian Refugee Agency, Explained
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The United Nations’ Palestinian Refugee Agency, Explained

The revelation that U.N. staff members participated in October 7 is the latest in a string of controversies.

Palestinians stand at the entrance of the UNRWA-run University College for Educational Science Ramallah city in the occupied West Bank on January 29, 2024. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)

After news broke on January 26 that 12 staffers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) were not only members of Hamas but also contributed to the October 7 attacks on Israel, much of the foreign aid that the agency relies on was frozen. The U.N. has since reported that nine of the 12 staffers have been fired, two are dead, and one remains missing. 

An additional 28 NGOs have also issued a joint statement in the agency’s defense, arguing that the lack of funding further endangers Palestinian lives.

As an organization that pro-Palestine advocates have previously argued closely aligns with U.S. values, UNRWA’s recent revelations are likely to not only escalate political polarization but also inflame the humanitarian crisis on the ground.

What is the UNRWA, and who is it supposed to serve?

UNRWA is one of the U.N.’s largest agencies, with some 30,000 personnel—13,000 of whom work in Gaza. It was formed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1949 with the specific charge to work with Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The war, which erupted the day after Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, led to a swift Israeli victory, and displaced an estimated 700,000 Palestinians.

UNRWA was established as a direct subsidiary of the U.N. General Assembly to implement “direct relief and works programmes” for Palestine refugees. But that mandate has undergone frequent adaptations depending on General Assembly resolutions. A 2010 U.N. report described UNRWA’s mandate as “evolving.” Because UNRWA answers directly to the General Assembly (one of only two U.N. agencies to do so), interpreting its charge falls to the U.N.’s under-secretary-general, who serves as UNRWA’s commissioner-general.

One reason for UNRWA’s size is the large constituency it serves. Yet even that has been one of the most contentious issues in its long history, as has the degree to which it is embedded in Palestinian affairs.

In the more than 70 years since UNRWA’s charter, which the U.N. most recently renewed in June 2023, the agency has secured a special position for Palestinian refugees as distinct from the U.N.’s larger work with refugees globally. In particular, UNRWA makes registration for refugee status available to descendants of Palestinian males, something not specified in the definition of refugee used elsewhere by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Today, UNRWA estimates that it serves more than 5.9 million Palestine refugees, 1.5 million of whom live in the 58 agency-operated camps located in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

If Palestine refugees are counted more traditionally, however, their numbers shrink substantially. How they are counted has been a contentious issue in political circles for more than a decade. In May 2012, for instance, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved language that would count only those people displaced in 1948 as refugees, putting the number of Palestine refugees at 30,000. The change was heavily opposed by the U.S. State Department but had no direct effect on foreign policy or aid.

What has happened since the latest misconduct findings?

While controversy is not new to UNRWA, the charge that 12 of its personnel helped execute the October 7 attacks on Israel could prove a turning point. Israeli intelligence reported that two employees helped kidnap Israelis, two others were tracked to sites where Israelis were executed, and others helped coordinate the logistics of the attack. Seven of the 12 were identified as teachers in UNRWA schools. 

In response, 18 countries have frozen contributions: Australia, Austria, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While aid from many foreign governments and private businesses has since been frozen, there have also been increased calls for UNRWA’s preservation. On Monday, Spain announced that it would contribute 18.5 million euros in light of recent freezes. Last Friday, a Norwegian MP nominated UNRWA for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Central to controversies of UNRWA’s misconduct is the degree to which the agency has become embedded in day-to-day Palestinian affairs and the challenge that presents to upholding the U.N.’s standard on neutrality, which the U.N. defines as abstaining from “all participation in a war between other states, the maintenance of an attitude of impartiality toward the belligerents, and the recognition by the belligerents of this abstention and impartiality.”

Membership in a local political party directly violates the U.N. policy. The situation in Gaza is especially challenging because the territory is governed by Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K., and other countries (though the U.N. does not). Turning over munitions found on UNRWA properties to local Hamas officials, then, puts the agency at risk of being complicit in Hamas activity.

Recent reports make the question of neutrality even more glaring. Israeli intelligence estimates that 23 percent of UNRWA’s male employees in Gaza have direct Hamas ties, and nearly half have close relatives tied to Hamas or other militant groups. 

What is the agency’s proper role? 

Scholars have argued that Palestine refugees are distinct from other refugees because they have a unique desire to return to their former homes. Palestinians, in turn, have relied on ongoing registration with UNRWA as a form of reciprocity—“a debt owed to them by the United Nations on account of its responsibility for their plight,” political scientist Jalal al-Husseini has explained. The Palestinians hold the U.N. responsible because of the 1947 vote to partition Palestine into separate “Jewish” and “Arab” states, which paved the way for the establishment of Israel.

The deep ties between the agency and Palestinians has made UNRWA foundational to delivering education and health care on the ground. The agency reports educating more than 500,000 Palestinian children, nearly 300,000 of whom are in Gaza. It additionally oversees 140 health care facilities across its locations, reporting more than 7 million annual patient visits to their clinics.

For Palestinians, then, registration with UNRWA is essential to their basic well-being, whether they live in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, or the refugee camps in neighboring countries.

These dynamics have allowed the international agency to play a leading role in defining Palestinian national identity. “UNRWA is literally the womb that birthed Palestinian nationalism,”  Einat Wilf, a former member of the Israeli parliament and staunch UNRWA critic, told The Dispatch. She described that nationalism as one focused on continuing the 1948 war until Israel is destroyed. While Wilf previously argued that UNRWA could be reformed, she now believes that for a more constructive Palestinian national identity to take shape, the agency must be dismantled.

What misconduct allegations has UNRWA faced in the past?

The revelation that some UNRWA staff members participated in the October 7 attacks on Israel is just the latest in an ongoing series of similar scandals. In the summer of 2014, UNRWA admitted to finding Hamas-owned weaponry on its properties in Gaza on two separate occasions. The agency condemned those responsible for storing the rockets, but made no conclusive findings about who was specifically at fault, stating instead that “it was highly likely that a Palestinian armed group might have used the premises to hide weapons.”

In response, Sens. Marco Rubio, Mark Kirk, and Ben Cardin issued a bipartisan letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry requesting an independent investigation of the UNRWA’s operations. Kerry, however, defended a grant of $15 million in funding to the agency just days after the second cache of weapons was discovered.

The following year, when a mortar tube and containers of rounds round containers were discovered under a blanket in a locked classroom, UNRWA turned the artillery over to “local authorities”—likely members of Gaza’s Hamas-led government.

Just before the Jewish New Year in 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would withhold half of $125 million in promised UNRWA funding. President Donald Trump presented the action as a bargaining tool for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, stating in a phone call with Jewish leaders that his message to UNRWA was, “If you don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.” The State Department, however, claimed that a holdup in funding was because of problems with UNRWA itself, with then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert describing the agency as “irredeemably flawed.”

In 2021, the Biden administration reversed the Trump policy and announced a new “Framework for Cooperation” between the U.S. and UNRWA. The commitment was renewed last June, even after a man-made tunnel—consistent with tunnels Hamas personnel use to travel and store supplies—was discovered under a UNRWA school the previous November. Both documents state that the U.N.’s policy of neutrality is integral to the commitment. 

That these commitments also highlight the importance of neutral school curriculum, and the political partisanship of staff is indicative of other criticisms the agency has faced. Last year, the Biden administration provided $422 million in UNRWA funding.

Whether UNRWA will survive the current conflict between Israel and Hamas will largely depend on whether the U.N. maintains support for the agency, and whether foreign governments’ and other sources of funding will remain frozen, even as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens. Most recently, the U.N. announced an independent investigation into whether UNRWA violated U.N. neutrality. The probe, led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna will begin on February 14, with a report expected by the end of March.

Annalise DeVries is an associate professor of history at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, who focuses on the modern Middle East, nationalism, and women's political history.