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Explainer – What is UNRWA?

5 February 20240 comments

Major international donors to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA), including Australia, have suspended funding after reports that about a dozen of its tens of thousands of Palestinian employees were involved in the deadly Hamas attack On Israel IN October.

So, what is UNRWA and what does it do?

UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was established in 1949 by a UN General Assembly resolution, following the war surrounding the founding of Israel.

The war saw 700,000 Palestinians flee or be forced to leave their homes.

Currently, UNRWA directly employs 30,000 Palestinians, serving the humanitarian and public needs of 5.9 million descendants of those refugees, in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and in camps in neighbouring countries.

It employs 13,000 people in the Gaza enclave, running schools, healthcare clinics and other social services, as well as distributing food and other humanitarian aid.

UNRWA’s work has become even more important in Gaza since 2005, when Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade causing an economic collapse along with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

Since Israel launched its assault on Gaza following the October 7 attacks, around a million Gazans, or nearly 45 per cent of the population, have been sheltering in UNRWA schools, clinics and other public buildings.

Almost all Gazans now rely on UNRWA for basic necessities, including food, water and hygiene supplies.

More than 150 UNRWA staff have been killed since the start of the conflict, making it the deadliest conflict ever for UN employees.

UNRWA is funded by contributions from UN members, including regional governments and the European Union, and from the UN budget.

In 2022, the top international donors were the United States, Germany, the European Union, Sweden, Norway, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey.

Israel claims 12 UNRWA staff members took part in the Hamas attacks, including nine who worked as teachers in the agency’s schools. Ten of them directly participated in the raid into Israeli territory, during which fighters killed 1,200 people and captured more than 240 hostages, and two others were summoned to assist the raid.

Also, Israeli authorities have called for the agency to be dismantled, saying its mission is obsolete and that it fosters anti-Israeli sentiment among its staff, in its schools and in its wider social mission.

In response, UNRWA says it acted swiftly to suspend the staff after the Israeli allegations and launched an investigation.

It says the funding suspension will jeopardise its mission and significantly worsen an already dire humanitarian emergency in Gaza.

“It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini told media.

The agency says it will not be able to continue operations in Gaza and across the region beyond the end of February if funding does not resume.