What Is UNRWA? Why Has Israel Long Sought Its Demise? What Is the US Actually Supporting in Defunding UNRWA?


Daniel Horgan - TRANSCEND Media Service


Following the 1948 War between Israel and Arab neighbors, UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) on December 8th, 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.  The Agency began operations on May 1st, 1950.

It defines Palestinian refugees as: “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period from June 1st, 1946 to May 15th, 1948; and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 War.” The definition was broadened to include persons displaced by the “1967 and subsequent hostilities”.

[For a brief video explanation of the history of this conflict and how these refugees came to be: Israeli Palestinian conflict explained]

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its areas of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5.9 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.  UNRWA recognizes facilities in 58 designated refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and it also provides facilities in other areas where large numbers of registered Palestine refugees live outside of recognized camps.

UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees.  It has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestine refugees. In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate.

Today, UNRWA has 30,000 staff, mainly Palestinian physicians, nurses, educators, relief workers, drivers, engineers, logisticians, who provide humanitarian relief,

healthcare, education and other assistance to millions of Palestine refugees throughout the Middle East. In Gaza, UNRWA’s 13,000 staff have supported almost all aspects of Palestinian life, especially after Israel imposed a blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007 with Egypt’s support.


Under international law Israel has a direct obligation to provide all humanitarian assistance to all Palestinian refugees which remain under their occupation.  This would include Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (which it still manages certain controls over).  UNRWA essentially absolves Israel of this responsibility, at least in part.

“The view of the Israeli security establishment could be that UNRWA is ultimately preferable to what they think the alternative might be without it,” said Anne Irfan, the author of a book about UNRWA and Palestinian refugees. “It provides services that otherwise under international law would really come under the remit of the occupying power.”

While UNRWA saves Israel an enormous amount of money and logistical operational planning, humanitarian and service delivery, its existence ironically also assists to keep alive the Palestinian ‘right of return’ issue.  The ‘right of return’ is something that has been upheld by UN Resolution 194 of the General Assembly, and is alluded to in countless Resolutions abiding Israel to respect the Palestinians ‘right of return’. Resolution 194 states: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

The state of Israel has historically and currently shown little intention of meeting the demands of these resolutions, and as such the Palestinian ‘right of return’ to homes and land within the land formerly known as Palestine.  This exact outcome (along with further annexations of Gaza and the West Bank) is the State of Israel’s true basis of opposing UNRWA.


Make no mistake.  The latest blockade of UNRWA aid to Gaza and statements by the State of Israeli are not about the baseless claims that 12 of UNRWA’s members assisted in the October 7th attacks by Hamas.  It is much more about a long standing grievance that the state of Israel has with the Palestinian ‘right of return’ to their lands and homes lost in 1948 and 1967.

Shatha Abdulsamad, a legal and refugee expert with al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, says that Israel opposes the return of nearly six million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA. “UNRWA is uniquely placed to highlight the need for a just solution for the plight of displaced Palestinians.  Its elimination would facilitate and expedite the liquidation of the Palestinian cause because it could contribute to undermining the collective right of return”.

 From Israel’s perspective, UNRWA is another enemy that has prolonged Palestinian resistance to its occupation. It is a “barrier” to solving the Palestinian refugee question by simply resettling Palestinian refugees in other countries, as it is now openly advocates.  (Its current war aims to kill them wholesale and/or drive them into the Sinai of Egypt and other surrounding countries if it were to be permitted by those countries.)

As reported in the New York Times, “UNRWA became a central mechanism in keeping a permanent question mark over the existence of a Jewish state,” said Einat Wilf, the co-author of a book about UNRWA. The organization helps to foster “a nationalism that is singularly focused on the idea of return,” she added.

Indeed Israel’s U.N. envoy Gilad Erdan gives proper reference to these claims as he said this past month (March 2024)  that even before the October 7 attacks, UNRWA was “always part of the problem and never part of the solution.”  (This among many open statements of high ranking Israeli officials to deny the very basis to the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians.)

In fact the charges against UNWRA regarding its involvement in the October 7th attacks were also a politically timed maneuver by the Israeli state apparatus.  “I don’t think it is coincidental that these allegations came out immediately after the ICJ ruling (that found a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza),” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian legal expert in international law. “It is designed to deflect from the ICJ ruling and focus the attention on UNRWA and to undermine any attempts to hold Israel accountable or stop the genocide.”

Part of the ICJ measures Israel is to implement to prevent genocide is the admittance of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.  The same tact again taken by Israel:  According Phillip Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner General Israel said this past week (end of March 2024) that it would no longer allow food trucks into Northern Gaza” and further that it would stop working with UNRWA in Gaza, accusing the aid agency of ‘perpetuating the conflict’.

David Mencer, Israeli State Spokesman said  “UNRWA are part of the problem, and we will now stop working with them. We are phasing — we are actively phasing out the use of UNRWA, because they perpetuate the conflict rather than try and alleviate the conflict.”

“By preventing UNRWA from fulfilling its mandate in Gaza, the clock will tick faster towards famine & many more will die of hunger, dehydration, and lack of shelter,” responded Phillip Lazzarini.”

Gilad Erdan, Israel UN envoy further added: “UNRWA will never again operate in Gaza as it did prior to October 7.  Its role in Gaza is finished, and it must be replaced immediately.”


Among the killing of over 14,00o children, a record number of journalists, medical personnel and aid workers, Israeli attacks have also killed 152 of UNRWA’s Palestinian employees.  This is the highest number of UN casualties since the world body was founded in 1945. Some have been killed in Israel’s deliberate, repeated attacks on UNRWA hospitals and schools, which shelter more than 1 million displaced Palestinians in Gaza.

According to UNRWA, Israel has hit its facilities 263 times since the start of the war, resulting in at least 360 civilian deaths. The attacks on UNRWA staff and facilities are emblematic of Israel’s broader efforts to destroy the agency, claim many Palestinian refugees and rights groups.


In addition to vehemently opposing the ICJ ruling both outright and with its own propaganda campaign, and ‘waging war’ on UNRWA, Israel has also lobbied Western states for the elimination of UNRWA in an effort to sabotage any attempt at a two-state solution.  With this it sabotages the ‘right of return’ for the stateless Palestinian refugees and furthers its desired outcome of its genocidal campaigns in Gaza and the West Bank.

Washington is the largest UNRWA donor ($343 million in 2022), followed by Germany and the European Union ($114 dollars in 2022).  From The US: President Biden recently signed a $1.2 trillion appropriations bill that strips funding to UNRWA for the next year. The US first suspended aid to UNRWA in late January following Israel’s claims against UNRWA.

Seeing the US “withhold funding … is a huge blow to us,” says Alrifai. “Stripping UNRWA of funding not only shrinks its ability to respond to the looming famine in Gaza, but also puts at risk the schools, the access of kids to proper education, the vaccines, the mother and child care — everything across the region.” said, UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifari.

Alrifari also opposed the manner in which this decision and legislation took place within the US.  “Any change to the way a U.N. agency works, especially as UNRWA gets its mandate from the U.N. General Assembly, should be discussed at the General Assembly. It is not about one or two U.N. member states to decide whether UNRWA can continue working or not. (Mostly notably Israel and the US).  This is a global decision, and the General Assembly is where we get an overwhelming vote of support. And that is where such a conversation should take place.”

Jewish US Senator of Vermont, Bernie Sanders voted “no” on the recent appropriations bill because of the stripping of funding to UNRWA. “Tens of thousands of people are starving. UNRWA is trying to feed them. And the Israeli government and its allies, like AIPAC, spend much of their time lobbying to defund UNRWA, the major organization which is feeding starving people. Sadly, tragically, many members of Congress seem to be happy to be part of this starvation caucus.”

Not all hope is lost in the short term as UNRWA confirms the gap in funding is starting to be filled, Tamara Alrifari ensured,  “Ireland and Spain have increased their funding to UNRWA and also their political support. The European Union, our second-largest donor as a group, did release the large part of its funding to UNRWA. Also, countries like Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, all of them are supporting UNRWA. Additionally income from private sources, from individuals and foundations, has skyrocketed since the beginning of this year, especially now during Ramadan, where many Muslims around the world are looking for a zakat-friendly way to donate per Islamic Sharia law. We have this mechanism, and many Muslims from around the world, from Malaysia to Indonesia to Singapore, are donating to UNRWA.


Perhaps UNRWA would be better off with the support of US ‘blood money’ that supplies bombs and diplomatic cover to the Israeli state apparatus.  The real tragedy beyond the demise of Gaza and its people as well their ‘right to life itself’, is the larger significance of the political sabotage of UNRWA.  This clearly undermines the ‘right of return’ and also undermines the actual and real prospect of a two state solution.

A two-state solution is something the US would still say it publicly supports, but in actuality it  contradicts this with its supplication of bombs and official defunding of UNRWA.  A two-state solution, as far away as it seems, is still the only thing that can quench the thirst of a largely displaced Palestinian Nation and their right to return, human dignity, identity, and self-determination.  In the very end, UNRWA’s elimination will not extinguish the fire that burns for these inherent rights.  It would also not eliminate the ‘right of return’ granted by International Law.  In fact many would agree that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question is also the key for the security of all Israelis, and perhaps all US citizens as well.

Let us not forget that,as stated on page 49 of the 9.11 Commission Report, one of the three reasons that Osama Bin Laden perpetrated Al-Qaeda attacks on 9.11 was the Palestinian situation/occupation and the US alliance with the state of Israel. This same vein of discontent runs through the heart of the Arab world.  If this Israeli run genocide sponsored by the US has taught us anything at all, it should be that it is time to fully understand and internalize how the absolute reality of these injustices threaten the security of all of us.


Daniel Horgan is a graduate of the European Center for Peace Studies, where he attended with students from Israel and Palestine. He is a former student of the late great Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer and an occasional contributor to Transcend Media Service.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Apr 2024.

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