U.N. Pleads for Aid to Not Be Cut to Palestinians: Israel-Hamas War Live Updates
The U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians has been a vital lifeline in the Gaza Strip for generations
The U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians has been a vital lifeline in the Gaza Strip for generations — and it was a point of contention with Israel long before some of the agency’s employees were accused of involvement in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 assault on Israel.
The allegation, made by Israel, is a serious blow to the reputation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, generally known as UNRWA. The claim was acted on by both the United Nations, which said on Friday that it had fired the accused workers and was investigating, and the United States, which said it was suspending some funding for the agency.
Here’s a closer look at the organization and its work.
What does UNRWA do?
UNRWA provides an array of social services for people registered as Palestinian refugees in the wars surrounding the formation of Israel, and for their descendants in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The agency looms especially large in Gaza, where most of the population of more than two million people are registered as refugees. Gaza has been under a longstanding Israeli blockade, and Hamas — considered a terrorist group by much of the world — wields control. No nation’s government takes even partial responsibility for governing the territory, and the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited powers in the West Bank, was effectively expelled from Gaza in a 2007 power struggle with Hamas.
UNRWA builds and operates schools, medical clinics, shelters and playgrounds throughout the territory. It provides food, housing assistance and emergency loans and even oversees some garbage collection. It is one of the largest employers in Gaza, with 13,000 workers, most of them Palestinian, a rarity in an enclave where almost half of adults are unemployed.
“Essentially, for the last few decades we have been operating a parallel government in Gaza,” Hector Sharp, the head of the agency’s legal office, said in an October interview.
What are the allegations against UNRWA?
It’s not entirely clear.
U.N. and American officials referred to claims that some UNRWA employees may have been “involved in” the Oct. 7 attacks, but did not elaborate on that involvement or say whether it included any of the worst atrocities committed that day.
The State Department referred to 12 employees being accused and fired — UNRWA did not offer a number — but it is unclear what kind of work they did or how senior they were. It also remains to be seen whether investigations will yield more such allegations.
What is UNRWA’s relationship with Israel?
Israel has long accused UNRWA of operating in collusion with Hamas, helping it indoctrinate Gazans with anti-Israel propaganda, and turning a blind eye to Hamas militants firing rockets at Israel and operating a vast tunnel network in the territory.
Hamas oversees what little civilian public administration exists in Gaza, so people and agencies under its control inevitably interact with the agency, but the extent and nature of that cooperation has been the subject of many competing claims.
Israel also objects to labeling those born outside of Israel as refugees.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has gone so far as to blame the agency for perpetuating rather than alleviating the plight of Palestinians and has called on the United Nations to disband it.
Israeli officials have long charged that Arab nations “want the Palestinian refugee problem to remain unresolved, so that there’s a constant reminder of the Palestinian tragedy,” said Ahron Bregman, a senior teaching fellow at King’s College London who specializes in the Arab-Israeli conflict. “UNRWA, as the Israelis see it, is a tool to keep the Palestinian refugee problem unresolved.”
But some experts say that despite the hostile public remarks, Israel, which occupied Gaza from 1967 to 2005, has needed the agency to provide stability there. “Behind the scenes Israel has often favored UNRWA’s work,” said Anne Irfan, an expert on Palestinian refugee rights at University College London.
Why was UNRWA set up?
UNRWA was established in 1949 to assist some 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel during the wars surrounding its creation and were prohibited by Israel from returning.
Many settled in refugee camps that the agency helped create, which have since become built-up, mostly impoverished urban areas.
Palestinians are the only refugee group whose support is not handled under the global mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations by U.N. member states, with the United States and European Union countries providing most of the financing.
The agency, which has said it was short of funds even before the current war began, has appealed for a major infusion of money to handle the additional need.
What has UNRWA’s role been during this war?
Since Israel began its bombing campaign and ground invasion in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack, UNRWA has taken primary responsibility for trying to shelter Gazans displaced from their homes — now nearly 90 percent of the population.
The agency has converted its schools, clinics and offices into emergency shelters that have become badly overcrowded, and has also set up sprawling tent camps. It has also been heavily involved in distributing deliveries of badly needed food, water and medicine.
It has also shared the suffering of people in Gaza, where the health ministry says more than 25,000 people have been killed in the war. The agency says that 152 of its employees are among the dead and that 141 of its facilities have been damaged or destroyed.
Megan Specia and Ben Hubbard contributed reporting.