United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

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United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East
UNRWA logo
Abbreviation UNRWA
Formation 8 December 1949
Purpose Humanitarian
Region served West Asia
Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl
Parent organization United Nations
Budget US$1.23 billion (2010–2011)[1]
Website www.unrwa.org

Created in December 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is a relief and human development agency, originally intended to provide jobs on public works projects and direct relief for 652,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the fighting that followed the end of the British mandate over the region of Palestine.[2]

It also provided relief to Jewish and Arab Palestine refugees inside the state of Israel following the 1948 conflict until the Israeli government took over responsibility for Jewish refugees in 1952.[3]

In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2017.

Today it provides education, health care, social services and military aid to 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, including survivors from the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants.[4]

The agency provides aid to the refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is the only agency dedicated to helping refugees from a specific region or conflict. It is separate from UNHCR,[5] (1950), the UN Refugee Agency, which is the only other UN agency aiding refugees, dedicated to aiding all refugees in the world.

History and mandate[edit]

UNRWA was established following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War by the United Nations General Assembly under Resolution 302(IV) of 8 December 1949. This resolution also reaffirmed paragraph 11, concerning refugees, of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948), adopted and passed unopposed, supported by Israel and the Arab states, with only the Soviet bloc and South Africa abstaining.[6]

UNRWA has had to develop a working definition of "refugee" to allow it to provide humanitarian assistance. Its definition does not cover final status.[7]

Palestine refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.[8]

UNRWA provides facilities in 59 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. UNRWA also provides facilities in other areas where large numbers of registered Palestine refugees live outside of recognized camps.

For a camp to be recognized by UNRWA, there must be an agreement between the host government and UNRWA governing use of the camp. UNRWA does not itself run any camps, has no police powers or administrative role, but simply provides services to the camp. Refugee camps, which developed from tent cities to settlements indistinguishable from their urban surroundings, house around one third of all registered Palestine refugees.


1948 Palestinian exodus
Man see school nakba.jpg

Main articles
1948 Palestinian exodus

1947–48 civil war
1948 Arab–Israeli War
1948 Palestine war
Causes of the exodus
Nakba Day
Palestine refugee camps
Palestinian refugee
Palestinian right of return
Present absentee
Transfer Committee
Resolution 194

Mandatory Palestine
Israeli Declaration of Independence
Israeli–Palestinian conflict history
New Historians
Palestine · Plan Dalet
1947 partition plan · UNRWA

Key incidents
Battle of Haifa
Deir Yassin massacre
Exodus from Lydda and Ramle

Notable writers
Aref al-Aref · Yoav Gelber
Efraim Karsh · Walid Khalidi
Nur-eldeen Masalha · Benny Morris
Ilan Pappé · Tom Segev
Avraham Sela · Avi Shlaim

Related categories/lists
List of depopulated villages

Related templates

UNRWA is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations General Assembly and its mandate is renewed every three years.

It is the largest agency of the United Nations, employing over 25,000 staff, 99% of which are locally recruited Palestinians.[9][10]

The Agency's headquarters are divided between the Gaza Strip and Amman, Jordan. Its operations are organised into five fields – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza.

UNRWA's Commissioner-General is Filippo Grandi, an Italian citizen, who succeeded Karen Koning AbuZayd, a US citizen, in 2010. Grandi is responsible for managing UNRWA's overall activities.[11] His subordinate in charge of distributing humanitarian aid and overseeing general UNRWA operations in Gaza is John Ging. The "public face" of UNRWA is spokesman Chris Gunness.


Most of UNRWA's funding comes from European countries and the United States.

In 2009, UNRWA’s total budget was US$1.2 billion, for which the agency received US$948 million.[12] In 2009, the retiring Commissioner General spoke of a $200 million shortfall in UNRWA's budgets.[13] Officials in 2009 spoke of a 'dire financial crisis'.[14]

In 2010, the biggest donors for its regular budget were the United States and the European Commission with $248 million and $165 million respectively. Sweden ($47m), the United Kingdom ($45m), Norway ($40m) and the Netherlands ($29m) are also important donors.[15] In addition to its regular budget, UNRWA receives funding for emergency activities and special projects.

The United States was the largest single donor with a total contribution of over $239 million in 2011, followed by the European Commission’s $175 million contribution.[16]

According to World Bank data, for all countries receiving more than $2 billion international aid in 2012, Gaza and the West Bank received a per capita aid budget over double the next largest recipient, at a rate of $495.[17][18]

In 2013, a total of $1.1 billion was donated to UNRWA. $294 million of those 2013 donations were contributed by the United States.[19]


Services provided by UNRWA include health care, education, relief and social services and micro-credit loan programmes.

Education programme[edit]

UNRWA operates one of the largest school systems in the Middle East, with 700 schools employing more than 20,000 teaching and support staff. It has been the main provider of basic education to Palestinian refugee children since 1950. The education programme is UNRWA's largest area of activity, accounting for half of its regular budget and 70 per cent of its staff. Basic education is available to all registered refugee children free of charge up to around the age of 15. By 2010 there were close to 500,000 students enrolled in 700 schools. UNRWA schools follow the curriculum of their host countries. This allows UNRWA pupils to progress to further education or employment holding locally recognised qualifications and fits with the sovereignty requirements of countries hosting refugees.

In the 1960s UNRWA schools became the first in the region to achieve full gender equality. Overcrowded classrooms containing 40 or even 50 pupils are common. Almost all of UNRWA's schools operate on a double shift – where two separate groups of pupils and teachers share the same buildings. Not all refugee children attend UNRWA schools. In Jordan and Syria children have full access to government schools and many attend those because they are close to where they live. UNRWA also operates ten vocational and technical training centres and three education science faculties one in Jordan and two in West Bank that have places for around 6,200 students.

Relief and social services programme[edit]

In Palestinian refugee society, families without a male bread winner are often very vulnerable. Those headed by a widow, a divorcee or a disabled father often live in dire poverty. UNRWA provides food aid, cash assistance and help with shelter repairs to these families. Fewer than six percent of refugees qualify as hardship cases, with the largest number being in Lebanon where restrictions on Palestinians entering the Lebanese job market cause severe hardship. Children from special hardship case families are given preferential access to the Agency's vocational training centres, while women in such families are encouraged to join UNRWA's women's programme centres. In these centres, training, advice and childcare are available to encourage female refugees’ social development.

Rations are distributed to families in UNRWA's special hardship category every quarter. The yearly value of the food is just over US$100 per person and most of it is received by the agency in the form of in-kind donations of basic foodstuff, such as flour, rice and dried milk. Finances permitting, the Agency also provides small cash grants to very poor refugee families to help with the purchase of items such as school uniforms and school books or as crisis grants, for example if they lose all their possessions in a house fire.

Most of the concrete-block shelters in the refugee camps were built by UNRWA in the 1950s to replace the tents in which refugees had lived since the 1948 war. Others were built after the 1967 conflict. Although most refugees have been able to make improvements and additions to their shelters over the years, the very poorest refugees often live in shelters that are now in extremely bad condition. Wet, crumbling walls, leaking zinc roofs and rodent infestation cause additional social and health problems. UNRWA has been able to repair hundreds of shelters in recent years, often simply by supplying materials while the families provide their own labour. UNRWA is unable to keep up with the growing numbers of special hardship case families who each year join its waiting list for shelter rehabilitation.

UNRWA created community-based organizations (CBOs) to target women, refugees with disabilities and to look after the needs of children. The CBOs now have their own management committees staffed by volunteers from the community. UNRWA provides them with technical and small amounts of targeted financial assistance, but many have made links of their own with local and international NGOs.

Health programme[edit]

Since 1950, UNRWA has been the main healthcare provider for the Palestinian refugee population. Basic health needs are met through a network of primary care clinics, providing access to secondary treatment in hospitals, food aid to vulnerable groups and environmental health in refugee camps.

The health of Palestine refugees resembles that of many populations in transition from developing world to developed world status. Immunisation programmes have vaccine-preventable diseases under control, but there remains a high prevalence of diseases caused by cramped housing and open sewers in the camps and high poverty levels. At the same time, non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are on the increase. Birth rates are among the highest in the world, with short intervals between pregnancies. Diarrhea and intestinal parasites are particularly common among children because of poor environmental health for the one third of refugees who live in camps. However, infant mortality rates are lower among refugees than the World Health Organisation's benchmark for the developing world. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Al-Aqsa Intifada has led to curfews and closures which have caused a growth in malnutrition, especially among children and nursing mothers. The economic hardships in the territory have driven many refugees away from private health care, increasing the number of patient visits to UNRWA doctors in the Gaza Strip by 61 per cent during the first two years of the conflict.

UNRWA's network of 122 clinics provides free primary healthcare to all registered refugees who ask for it. The clinics are based inside refugee camps or near concentrations of refugees. In 2003 the clinics handled 10 million patient visits – averaging more than 110 visits per doctor per day. Medical services include outpatient care, dental treatment and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. Maternal and child healthcare (MCH) is a priority for UNRWA's health programme. School health teams and camp medical officers visit UNRWA schools to examine new pupils to aid early detection of childhood diseases. All UNRWA clinics offer family planning services with counselling that emphasises the importance of birth spacing as a factor in maternal and child health. Agency clinics also supervise the provision of food aid to nursing and pregnant mothers who need it and six clinics in the Gaza Strip have their own maternity units.

UNRWA provides refugees with assistance in meeting the costs of hospitalisation either by partially reimbursing them, or by negotiating contracts with government, NGO and private hospitals.

The 1.3 million refugees who still live in refugee camps – one third of the total – receive environmental health services from UNRWA. These include such essentials as sewage disposal, the provision of safe drinking water and disposal of refuse. Large scale projects have been carried out in camps since 1989, but many still have inadequate infrastructure, including open sewers. A great many refugee shelters suffer flooding by waste water in winter.

UNRWA Microfinance Department[edit]

UNRWA's Microfinance Department (MD) aims to alleviate poverty and support economic development in the refugee community by providing capital investment and working capital loans at commercial rates. The programme seeks to be as close to self-supporting as possible. It has a strong record of creating employment, generating income and empowering refugees.

The Microfinance Department is an autonomous financial unit within UNRWA, established in 1991 to provide microfinance services to Palestine refugees, as well as poor or marginal groups living and working in close proximity to them. With operations in three countries, the MD currently has the broadest regional coverage of any microfinance institution in the Middle East. Having begun its operations in the oPt, it remains the largest non-bank financial intermediary in the West Bank and Gaza. As of March 2010, it has extended over 202,100 loans across its areas of operation, valued at USD 224.29 million.


The MD works by extending micro-credit and complimentary services to small entrepreneurs, households and businesses. This lending is guided in part by economic objectives: to sustain and create jobs, reduce poverty and boost economic security. However, its aim is also to support human development more broadly, by sustaining household consumption and family investments in education and health. Fundamentally, all lending seeks to empower the MD’s clients, and in this respect particularly targets women and youth, as well as other economically and socially vulnerable groups, who face particular challenges in obtaining affordable credit. The MD conceives of its mission in the context of the United Nation’s broader vision of building inclusive financial services for the poor. Many of its clients manage small, often informal businesses on the margins of the economy. The vast majority are unable to secure affordable credit from commercial banks. Yet if provided with such loans they do have the ability to repay them, while generating sustainable incomes for themselves, as well as their families and employees, many of whom are drawn from the poorest segments of society. The MD’s work is to help close this circle of opportunity.


As of March 2009, the MD has invested USD 174.36 million in the Palestinian economy through 146,600 loans. In order to assist Palestine refugees across the wider Middle East region, the department has since 2003 also maintained operations in Jordan and Syria ─ currently home to 2.46 million Palestine refugees. In the intervening six years it has grown into the second largest microfinance provider in Syria, where it is also the first institution to reach operational self-sufficiency, and the fifth largest in Jordan. In total it has disbursed over 55,400 loans in these markets, for a cumulative investment of USD 54.51 million. The department focuses its outreach on poor urban areas, which are both centres of commercial and industrial activity and host a high concentration of Palestine refugees. As of March 2010 it maintains 17 branches around the region, employing 310 staff. Seven branches are in the West Bank, three in Gaza, four in Jordan, and three in Syria. Operations in each country, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, are overseen by a field office, each of which is in turn supervised and provided with support services by the MD’s headquarters in Jerusalem.

Products and Services:

Through its branch offices the MD provides a range of credit products. Existing products available in the MD’s markets include the following:

Microenterprise Credit (MEC): targets the overwhelming majority of regional businesses which employ fewer than five workers, most of whom enjoy no access to formal credit and are vulnerable to shocks. The loans range from USD 300 to USD 8,500, and are designed to help such businesses build-up and maintain reserves of short-term working capital.
Microenterprise Credit Plus (MEC+): allows mature microenterprises who seek to expand capital and grow employment to expand MEC borrowing with more extended repayment horizons. Eligible clients include formal enterprises and borrowers who have demonstrated repayment ability over several loan cycles.
Solidarity Group Lending (SGL): designed for groups of women entrepreneurs who are collectively and individually responsible for repayment. Starting at USD 400, with a maximum ceiling of USD 5,000, the SGL sustains microenterprise, as well household expenditures on education, health, and basic needs.
Women’s Household Credit (WHC): an adaptation of the SGL loan, first piloted in Syria to accommodate home-based enterprise by women, allowing them to build up household assets used for business. Unlike the SLG product, it does not work on a group-lending model. Average disbursements are in the range USD 150 to USD 800.
Consumer Loan Product (CLP): supports low-income and working-class family consumption, regular investments in education and health, as well as emergency outlays.
Housing Loan Product (HLP): helps poor families with no access to mortgage facilities improve, expand or acquire housing.
Small-Scale Enterprise Lending (SSE): finances the long-term capital needs of a range of small-to large-scale formal enterprises
Small and Medium Enterprise Business Training (SMET): an enterprise training program in Gaza that trains participants in subjects such as book-keeping, taxation, tendering, computing and e-commerce.

Emergency operations[edit]

Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, UNRWA has been working to alleviate the impact of resulting curfews and closures on the refugee population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The effect of closures on the Palestinian economy has caused thousands to lose their livelihoods. It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the population is out of work -putting over 60 per cent of the population under the poverty line with an income of below US$2 a day. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that close to two million Palestinians, 62 per cent of the population, are considered "vulnerable" because they have inadequate access to food, shelter or health services. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported a sharp growth in malnutrition and anemia among Palestinian children – marked by stunted growth or low body weights.[14]

As part of its emergency relief activities, UNRWA provides temporary jobs for unemployed breadwinners – a programme that has allowed the Agency to indirectly support 160,000 women and children in Gaza alone. UNRWA has also increased its provision of food aid. Before the conflict UNRWA distributed food to around 20,000 refugee families, it now targets 230,000 families across the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA food parcels typically contain 50 kilograms of flour, five kilograms of rice, five kilograms of sugar, two liters of cooking oil, one kilogram of powdered milk and five kilograms of lentils.

The Agency assists the almost 30,000 refugees whose homes have been destroyed during military operations. UNRWA has provided tents, blankets, kitchen kits, medicines and drinking water, as well as cash assistance to help with renting a new home to those families made homeless. The Agency is also rebuilding and repairing shelters. The focus of the Agency's rebuilding work has been Rafah and Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip and in Jenin camp in the West Bank. In Jenin a donation of US$27 million from the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society allowed UNRWA to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and communal facilities of the camp that were destroyed by the fighting in April 2002.

UNRWA's health programme faces increased demands in the territories because of the injuries, stress and psychological trauma caused by the conflict. The economic impact of closures is also increasing the demands made on the Agency as refugees seek care from the Agency rather than from private providers. UNRWA ambulances and mobile medical teams bring healthcare to communities isolated by closures for long periods.

The crisis has had a particularly marked effect on the refugee children served by UNRWA's schools. Teachers and pupils are often unable to reach their schools and thousands of teaching days have been lost. Schools have come under fire on many occasions and have been used as military outposts and detention centres. The violent events witnessed by the children have caused emotional and psychological trauma and many have suffered the loss of classmates or family members. Examination pass rates have collapsed because of the conflict and UNRWA is running remedial classes in each school to try to compensate for the time lost to education. The Agency has also hired teams of trauma counselors to work with those children who have been emotionally scarred by their experiences.

To fund its emergency activities in the West Bank and Gaza UNRWA has launched a series of appeals for funds. The first of these was a flash appeal in October 2000 for US$4.83 million. In November 2004 UNRWA launched an appeal for US$186 million to cover emergency operations during 2005.


UNRWA received public expressions of praise and appreciation by the Nobel Peace Laureates Mairéad Corrigan Maguire[20] and Kofi Annan,[21] by the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations,[22] by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon[15], and by representatives from the European Union,[23] the United States,[24] the Netherlands,[25] Japan,[26] Bangladesh,[27] Cyprus,[28] Jordan,[29] Ghana, and Norway, among others. In 2007, the Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations described his country as a "strong supporter" of UNRWA, which acts as "a safety net" for the Palestine refugees, providing them with "immediate relief, basic services and the possibility of a life in dignity."[30] The same day, the Representative of Iceland praised the fact that

"despite times of exceptional hardship and suffering in the region, UNRWA has been able to deliver substantial results. On the humanitarian front, UNRWA played a central role in easing the suffering of both refugees and Lebanese civilians during its emergency operations in Lebanon and on the Gaza Strip. Under often life-threatening conditions, UNRWA's staff showed relentless dedication to the Agency's responsibilities."

Gershon Kedar, Israel's delegate to the fourth committee, confirmed Israel's support for the UNRWA: "My delegation wishes to inform the Committee that despite our concerns regarding the politicization of UNRWA, Israel supports its humanitarian mission, and will continue to work in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation with the agency under the leadership of its Commissioner-General, Karen Honing AbuZayd."[31]


Clearly, UNRWA operates under difficult conditions. On many occasions UNRWA buildings have been caught in battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants resulting in the deaths of several employees.

For many reasons its refugee load has increased much faster than its budget. The 1967 war created additional refugees. In addition, the descendents of refugees are also within UNRWA purview; with all generations included, there are about five million people who use UNRWA's services.

The amount and variety of humanitarian assistance needed has been affected greatly by the tightening of the closure regime since the Second Intifada in the former Israeli-occupied territories, chiefly Gaza.[32]

The number and complexity of tasks have also increased. UNRWA's original mandate does not require resettling refugees or transferring responsibility to the Palestinian Authority. Although the UN mandate is renewed every three years, resettling and transferring have never been added to the mandate.

After 65 years, UNRWA may have become a nation and sub-culture unto itself. As Emanual Marx and Nitza Nachmias pointed out in 2004:

Most of the criticism concerns the UNRWA showing the pathology of “aging”, including symptoms of inflexibility, resistance to adjust to the changing political environment and refusal to phase out and transfer its responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority.[33]

In addition there have been additional issues pointed out especially by Israel and pro-Israel groups. It has been accused of hiring known militants, perpetuating Palestinian dependency, demonizing Israel, and funneling money from Western governments to line the pockets of the Palestinian Authority and purchasing arms for terrorists.[34][35]

The mandate itself[edit]

The UNRWA definition is meant solely to determine eligibility for UNRWA assistance. However, some argue it serves to perpetuate the conflict.[36][37][38][39][40] Under General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), of 11 December 1948, other persons may be eligible for repatriation and/or compensation but are not necessarily eligible for relief under the UNRWA's working definition. Thus a person who is not qualified or who has ceased to qualify for the benefits afforded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, may still qualify for assistance as a refugee by the UNRWA definition.

Gazan MBA student, Rana Baker, speaking from a highly Israel-critical point of view, has concluded

By absolving Israel and the Palestinian governments of responsibility, UNRWA is actually sustaining the sorry state of the Palestinians [41]

UNRWA and the "right of return"[edit]

Critics of Israel say it should allow the refugees to return, which some say is stipulated in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 which Israel supported, which would make UNRWA redundant. Defenders of UNRWA respond that it is the stateless status of the Palestinians under British mandate in 1948 that made it necessary to create a definition of refugee based on criteria other than nationality.

Israel responds that settling so many people within Israel – most of whom never lived in that part of Mandate Palestine – would be fatally disruptive to the country.

Compromise proposals stress giving at least some refugees the option of living in Israel or receiving compensation – plus international aid to resettle as many people as possible in the host countries (including the Palestinian Authority).[42] [43] [44]

An interplay with the refugee problem created when some 800,000 Jews were displaced from Arab countries is sometimes discussed. For example,

In 2000, President Bill Clinton stated on Israeli television that he sought to explore "a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land." [45]

Solutions tying together both streams of refugees may not need to involve much money; many observers stress the important of international recognition of suffering. [46]

Creating dependency[edit]

Although UNRWA's Mandate is only Relief and Works,[47] the Wall Street Journal Europe edition, published an op-ed by Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander H. Joffe in April 2011 saying that despite UNRWA's "purported goal, it is hard to claim that the UNRWA has created any Palestinian institutions that foster a genuinely civil society. Ideally the UNRWA would be disbanded and Palestinians given the freedom – and the responsibility – to build their own society."[48]

Critics of UNRWA say that the present definition gives Palestine refugees a favored status when compared with other refugee groups, which the UNHCR defines in terms of nationality as opposed to a relatively short number of years of residency.[49] For example, journalist Arlene Kushner stated that:[50]

other refugees worldwide are tended to by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which works under the guidelines of the Convention on Refugees of 1951. Only UNRWA and its Palestinian Arab protégés stand apart from this: UNRWA is the only agency that is dedicated to a single group of refugees and establishes its own rules for them. The High Commission is mandated to help refugees get on with their lives as quickly as possible, and works to settle them rapidly, most frequently in countries other than those they fled. UNRWA policy, however, states that the Palestinian Arabs who fled from Israel in the course of the 1948 war–and their descendants!–are to be considered refugees until they return to the homes and villages they left more than half a century ago (which actually no longer exist).

Defenders of the UNRWA respond point out that Palestinians in British Mandate of Palestine up to 1948 were stateless and therefore ineligible for refugee benefits under the common definition, necessitating a second refugee framework.[citation needed] UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness and many international lawyers[who?] maintain that while the agency does not perpetuates the refugee issue, claims to the contrary are politically motivated, academically dubious, misinterpret international law, and fail to take account of refugee practice:[not in citation given]

Palestinian refugees continue to be refugees because the issues which caused their exile remain outstanding. Only by addressing in a just and durable fashion the underlying causes of conflict – and by doing so in accordance with international law and the rights of refugees – can the refugee issue be laid to rest. This is the responsibility of the parties and international political actors. It is wishful, cynical thinking to suppose that Palestinian refugees can be made to "go away" by dispersing them around the globe or by dissolving the Agency established to protect and assist them pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

A United States Senator claims that UNRWA is an example of a United Nations anti-Israel bias, and that Palestine refugees should be treated the same as all others with refugee status around the world.[51]

Administration, accountability and statistics[edit]

In 2006, the UNRWA drew criticism from the US Congressmen Mark Kirk and Steven Rothman. Their letter, sent to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stated in part: "After an exhaustive review of the UN's own audit, it is clear UNRWA is wrought by mismanagement, ineffective policies, and failure to secure its finances. We must upgrade UNRWA's financial controls, management and enforcement of US law that bars any taxpayer dollars from supporting terrorists."[52]

UNRWA itself has initiated a reform program based on organizational development to improve efficiency.[53] The program started in 2007 but no results seem have been reported.

There has been extensive criticism of the statistics, data collection techniques, and definitions concerning Palestinian refugees by the UNRWA.Historians, such as Martha Gellhorn and Dr. Walter Pinner, have also blamed UNRWA for distortion of statistics and even of sheer fraud. Pinner wrote in 1959 that the actual number of refugees then was only 367,000.[54]

In 2012, United States Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) pushed to require the State Department to report on how many of the millions of people currently supported by UNRWA are actually people who were physically displaced from their homes who lived in the area between June 1946 to May 1948 or fled, and how many are descendants of original refugees.{{Fact}}

Kirk Amendment to investigate number of refugees[edit]

United States Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) created an amendment to the fiscal 2013 State Department and foreign operations appropriations bill that would require the State Department to report on how many of the millions of people currently supported by UNRWA are actually people who were physically displaced from their homes who lived in the area between June 1946 to May 1948 or fled, and how many are descendants of original refugees. Kirk's spokesperson Kate Dickens explained that the purpose was not to affect U.S. policy on UNRWA or cut funding to UNRWA, but rather to create more transparency within the organization.[55] The amendment was accepted by the Senate.[56][57] The official language is as follows:[55]

The Committee directs the Secretary of State to submit a report to the Committee not later than one year after enactment of this act, indicating –

(a)the approximate number of people who, in the past year, have received UNRWA services –
(1)whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict; and
(2)who are descendants of persons described in subparagraph (1);
(b)the extent to which the provision of such services to such persons furthers the security interests of the United States and of other United States allies in the Middle East; and

(c)the methodology and challenges in preparing each report.

Not preparing Palestinians for a future in peace[edit]

UNRWA uses more than half of its budget on education. And the agency points out that their students outperform their peers in host-government schools in Syria and Jordan.[32]

However, there seem to be some serious problems.

For example, according to former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold (in 2005):[58]

Although education was one of the fields in which UNRWA was supposed to provide aid, the agency did nothing to alter Palestinian educational texts that glorified violence and continuing war against Israel.

In May 2013, Israel's UN ambassador sent a letter to UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon complaining that UNWRA Lebanese director for Palestinian refugees, Ann Dismorr, had posed beside a map that showed "Arab Palestine" from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.[59] UNRWA "categorically reject[ed]" the charge, saying that that the object was an embroidery of a pre-1948 map from before Israel existed.[60]

In 2013, Israeli media outlets aired a video documenting UNRWA-funded summer camps where children are being taught to engage in violence with Israelis. The video airs speakers telling campers “With God’s help and our own strength we will wage war. And with education and Jihad we will return to our homes!” A student is also shown on camera describing that “the summer camp teaches us that we have to liberate Palestine.”[61]

UNRWA and the Palestinian curriculum[edit]

For historical reasons UNRWA schools followed the Jordanian curriculum in the West Bank and the Egyptian curriculum in the Gaza Strip and this practice continued under the Israeli control of those areas between 1967 and 1994. Since 1994 the Palestinian Authority has progressively been replacing the old Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks as new PA-produced textbooks become available.

In 1998, two years before the Al-Aqsa intifada, US Congressman Peter Deutsch (D-FL) and other Congressmembers pressured the State Department to ask UNRWA to investigate evidence that Palestinian Authority school books used in UNRWA-run schools contained anti-Semitic statements. The allegations surfaced in reports compiled by the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, an Israeli-American NGO. The last of the older Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks were phased out of UNRWA schools in the autumn of 2004.

In 1999 and 2000, Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, published a study on this subject.[62]

Regarding the Palestinian Authority's new textbooks, he states: "The new books have removed the anti-Semitism present in the older books while they tell history from a Palestinian point of view, they do not seek to erase Israel, delegitimize it or replace it with the "State of Palestine"; each book contains a foreword describing the West Bank and Gaza as "the two parts of the homeland"; the maps show some awkwardness but do sometimes indicate the 1967 line and take some other measures to avoid indicating borders; in this respect they are actually more forthcoming than Israeli maps; the books avoid treating Israel at length but do indeed mention it by name; the new books must be seen as a tremendous improvement from a Jewish, Israeli, and humanitarian view; they do not compare unfavorably to the material my son was given as a fourth grade student in a school in Tel Aviv". Brown also described the research into Palestinian textbooks conducted by the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace as "tendentious and highly misleading".

However, in an exchange with CMIP Brown notes "my criticism that CMIP's work is 'tendentious and highly misleading' was made before CMIP issued its 2001 report and could hardly have referred specifically to it."[63][64]

In 2002, the United States Congress requested the United States Department of State to commission a reputable NGO to conduct a review of the new Palestinian curriculum. The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) was thereby commissioned by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the US Consul General in Jerusalem to review the Palestinian Authority's textbooks. Its report was completed in March 2003 and delivered to the State Department for submission to Congress. Its executive summary states: "The overall orientation of the curriculum is peaceful despite the harsh and violent realities on the ground. It does not openly incite against Israel and the Jews. It does not openly incite hatred and violence. Religious and political tolerance is emphasized in a good number of textbooks and in multiple contexts."

Its June 2004 follow-up report notes that "except for calls for resisting occupation and oppression, no signs were detected of outright promotion of hatred towards Israel, Judaism, or Zionism" and that "tolerance, as a concept, runs across the new textbooks". The report also stated that "textbooks revealed numerous instances that introduce and promote the universal and religious values and concepts of respect of other cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, peace, human rights, freedom of speech, justice, compassion, diversity, plurality, tolerance, respect of law, and environmental awareness".

However, the IPCRI noted a number of deficiencies in the curriculum, stating "The practice of 'appropriating' sites, areas, localities, geographic regions, etc. inside the territory of the State of Israel as Palestine/Palestinian observed in our previous review, remains a feature of the newly published textbooks (4th and 9th Grade) laying substantive grounds to the contention that the Palestinian Authority did not in fact recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people. [...] A good number [of maps ...] show Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as one geographic entity (without demarcation lines or differentiated colorings). Historically Palestinian cities (e.g., Akka, Yafa, Haifa, Safad, al-Lid, Ar-Ramla, Beer As-sabe’) are included in some maps that lump together the areas controlled by the PA with those inside the State of Israel. No map of the region bears the name of 'Israel' in it the pre-1967 Armistice Demarcation Lines. In addition, Israeli towns with a predominantly Jewish population are not represented on these maps."

The Summary also states that the curriculum asserts a historical Arab presence in the region, while "The Jewish connection to the region, in general, and the Holy Land, in particular, is virtually missing. This lack of reference is perceived as tantamount to a denial of such a connection, although no direct evidence is found for such a denial." It also notes that "terms and passages used to describe some historical events are sometimes offensive in nature and could be construed as reflecting hatred of and discrimination against Jews and Judaism."[65]

Hamas sympathizers employed in and dominating UNRWA unions[edit]

Peter Hansen, UNRWA's former Commissioner-General (1996–2005), caused controversy[citation needed] in Canada in October 2004 when he said in an interview with CBC TV:

Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.
We demand of our staff, whatever their political persuasion is, that they behave in accordance with UN standards and norms for neutrality.[66]

Hansen later specified that he had been referring not to active Hamas members, but to Hamas sympathizers within UNRWA. In a letter to the Agency's major donors, he said he was attempting to be honest because UNRWA has over 8,200 employees in the Gaza Strip. Given the 30 to 40 percent support to Hamas in Gaza at the time, and UNRWA's workforce of 11,000 Palestinians, at least some Hamas sympathizers were likely to be among UNRWA's employees. The important thing, he wrote, was that UNRWA's strict rules and regulations ensured that its staff remained impartial UN servants. But he was retired from United Nations service on 31 March 2005.[67]

In 2009 Hamas won a teachers union elections for UN schools in Gaza [68]

John Ging, the Gaza head of operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, said employees must not "be under the influence of any political party in the conduct of their work." The letter, dated March 29, was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday. [69]

In 2012 Hamas won a workers union election in UNRWA [70]

Struggling with and capitulating to Hamas' demands in schools, summer camps, and sports[edit]

Hamas denounced UNRWA and Ging, accusing them of using their summer camps to corrupt the morals of Palestinian youth. Hamas also advised UNRWA to reexamine its curriculum to ensure its suitability for Palestinian society, due to the mixing of genders at the camps. In September 2011 it was reported that, under pressure from Hamas, UNRWA has made all its summer camps single-sex.

At the same time it was reported that UNRWA has suspended the introduction of Holocaust studies in its schools.[71]

Hamas has its own network of summer camps and the two organizations are regarded to be vying for influence with Gazan youth.[72] Islamic Jihad has also run summer camps since 2013 [73]

UNRWA did not fund its own summer camps for summer 2012 and summer 2014. Hamas is now the direct provider of summer activities for about 100,000 children and youths. [74]

In 2013, UNRWA canceled its planned marathon in Gaza after Hamas rulers prohibited women from participating in the race.[75]

In 2013 Hamas passed a law requiring gender segregation in schools for all pupils nine years of age and older. [76]

In April 2013 Palestinian journalist, Hazem Balousha, summed up years of tension between UNRWA and Hamas

Agency in Gaza faces increasing difficulty in carrying out its work, as the Hamas-led government claims some of its activities are not in line with the Strip’s Islamic culture and values ... [77]

Direct and indirect involvement with or support of terrorists[edit]

In 2003, Israel released to newspapers what the New York Times called a "damning intelligence report". Citing interrogations of suspected militants, the document claims that UNRWA operations being used as cover for Palestinian terrorists, including smuggling arms in UN ambulances and hosting meetings of Tanzim in UN buildings.[78] UN officials responded, according to the NY Times, by saying that it is Israel that has "lost its objectivity and begun regarding anyone who extends a hand to a Palestinian as an enemy."[78]

The Israeli Army circulates footage taken on 29 October 2007 showing three militants firing mortars from UNRWA boys’ school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. The militants were able to enter due to the fact that the school was evacuated at the time because of the war.

On 4 February 2009, UNRWA halted aid shipments into the Gaza Strip after it accused Hamas of breaking into a UN warehouse and stealing tonnes of blankets and food which had been earmarked for needy families.[79][80] A few days later, the UN resumed aid after the missing supplies had been returned.[81]

On 5 August 2009, the IDF accused Hamas of stealing three ambulances that had just been transferred through Israel to the UNRWA. The UNRWA spokesman denied the claim.[82] A week later, Hamas confirmed it confiscated the ambulances due to bureaucratic reasons. A UNRWA spokesman also confirmed this but soon retracted this admission and denied the incident, even publicizing a photo it claimed was of one its officials with the ambulances.[83]

UNRWA has consistently rejected the allegation that militants used the Agency's installations during the Gaza war in 2008 – 2009. http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=356 These accusations have been published by some media outlets, although they are sometimes retracted. In 2012 when on two occasions, Israel Channel Two TV, the most popular network in Israel apologised and issued a retraction of these allegations. http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1399 see also http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1477

On 23 May 2010, a group of 30 armed masked men set fire to the construction site of an UNRWA summer camp in Gaza City, destroying it. The arsonists left a letter addressed to UNRWA head John Ging, threatening his life. Four bullets were attached to the letter. Hamas condemned the arson but tried to minimize its importance.

Concrete proposals for further investigation and/or reform[edit]

James G. Lindsay[edit]

James G. Lindsay, a former UNRWA general-counsel and fellow researcher for Washington Institute for Near East Policy has published a report for WINEP in which he criticized UNRWA practices.[84] Lindsay claimed that UNRWA is not ousting terrorists from its ranks:

UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of organizations such as Hamas from joining its staff. UNRWA has no preemployment security checks and does not monitor off-time behavior to ensure compliance with the organization's anti-terrorist rules. No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services.[84][85]

Lindsay also stated that UNRWA’s failure to match UNHCR’s success in resettling refugees "obviously represents a political decision on the part of the agency" and "seems to favor the strain of Palestinian political thought espoused by those who are intent on a 'return' to the land that is now Israel". He argued that UNRWA’s education system is highly problematic. Lindsay quoted a number of American researches that defined UNRWA's schools' curriculum as "highly nationalistic" and "not a 'peace curriculum'" and stated that the textbooks fail "to identify Israel on maps", and that they avoid "discussing Jews or Israelis as individuals (which critics argue would make them more “human” to the reader)"[84]

In his report he also offered suggestions for improvement:

UNRWA should make the following operational changes: halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues; take additional steps to ensure the agency is not employing or providing benefits to terrorists and criminals; and allow the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or some other neutral entity, to provide balanced and discrimination-free textbooks for UNRWA schools.[84]

Response to Lindsay's report[edit]

Andrew Whitley, director of the UNRWA representative office at UN headquarters in New York, said: "The agency is disappointed by the findings of the study, found it to be tendentious and partial, and regrets in particular the narrow range of sources used".[86]

UNRWA's Jerusalem spokesman Chris Gunness stated that UNRWA rejects Lindsay's report and its findings and claimed that the study was inaccurate and misleading, since it "makes selective use of source material and fails to paint a truthful portrait of UNRWA and its operations today".[87]

John Ging, head of UNRWA Gaza, stated that he was disappointed to Lindsay criticising UNRWA for failure to resettle refugees in the report. Ging argued that Lindsay had "no basis to say that it is UNRWA’s decision because our mandate is given to us. I agree that it is a political failure, but we don’t set up the mandate, we are only the implementers".[88]

Regarding the report portion about UNRWA's schools, Ging said: "As for our schools, we use textbooks of the Palestinian Authority. Are they perfect? No, they’re not. I can’t defend the indefensible."[88]

In August 2014 US Senators demanded an impartial investigation into UNRWA's alleged participation in the 2014 Gaza-Israel conflict, accusing UNRWA of being complicit with Hamas.[89]

Lindsay's Response to UNRWA's criticism[edit]

In response to the criticism of his report from UNRWA, Lindsay writes:

Despite repeated requests from the author, the agency declined to identify the alleged weaknesses on the grounds that “our views—and understanding—of UNRWA’s role, the refugees and even U.S. policy are too far apart for us to take time (time that we do not have) to enter into an exchange with little likelihood of influencing a narrative which so substantially differs from our own.” Thus, the paper has not benefited from any input by UNRWA, whether a discussion of policy or even correction of alleged errors.[90]

UNRWA Reform Initiative[edit]

An initiative to reform UNRWA was announced by the Center for Near East Policy Research.[91] This follows other longstanding concerns about UNRWA's role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.[92]

Loss of Canadian support[edit]

In January 2010, the Government of Canada announced that it was redirecting aid previously earmarked to UNRWA "to specific projects in the Palestinian Authority that will ensure accountability and foster democracy in the PA." Victor Toews, the president of Canada's Treasury Board, stated, "Overall, Canada is not reducing the amount of money given to the PA, but it is now being redirected in accordance with Canadian values. This "will ensure accountability and foster democracy in the PA." Previously, Canada provided UNRWA with 11 percent of its budget at $10 million (Canadian) annually.[93][94] The decision came despite positive internal evaluations of the Agency by CIDA officials.[95] The Canadian decision put it very much at odds with the US and EU, which maintained or increased their levels of funding. Some suggested that the decision also cost Canada international support in its failed October 2010 effort to obtain a seat on the UN Security Council.[96]

Documents obtained from the Canadian International Development Agency revealed that even the government of Israel opposed the Canadian move, and had asked Ottawa to resume contributions to UNRWA's General Fund.[97]

Investigation by the United States Congress[edit]

The United States government financed a programme of "Operations Support Officers", part of whose job is to make random and unannounced inspections of UNRWA facilities to ensure their sanctity from militant operations. In 2004 the US Congress asked the General Accounting Office to investigate media claims that taxpayer's dollars given to UNRWA had been used to support individuals involved in militant activities. During its investigation, the GAO discovered several irregularities in its processing and employment history.[98]

2014 US call for investigation[edit]

Members of the United States Senate are demanding an independent investigation into the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency during Israel's most recent war in Gaza with Hamas.

...While the letter does not call on the State Department to cut aid, the senators write that the American taxpayers "deserve to know if UNRWA is fulfilling its mission or taking sides in this tragic conflict." ...Responding to the letter, a State Department spokesman said that the UN is taking "proactive steps to address this problem," including deploying munitions experts to the strip in search of more weapons caches. "The international community cannot accept a situation where the United Nations– its facilities, staff and those it is protecting– are used as shields for militants and terrorist groups," State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez told The Jerusalem Post. "We remain in intensive consultations with UN leadership about the UN’s response." ... "There are few good solutions given the exceptionally difficult situation in Gaza," Vasquez continued, "but nonetheless we are in contact with the United Nations, other UNRWA donors and concerned parties— including Israel— on identifying better options for protecting the neutrality of UN facilities and ensuring that weapons discovered are handled appropriately and do not find their way back to Hamas or other terrorist groups."


Relations with Israel[edit]

After Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israel requested that the UNRWA continue its operations there, and agreed to facilitate them. Since then the relationship has been characterized by Baruch Spiegel

has been an uneasy marriage of convenience between two unlikely bedfellows that has helped perpetuate the problem both have allegedly sought to resolve.


Relations between UNRWA and Israel have often been strained. A list of examples follows.

UNRWA has been under routine attack from the Israeli government and politicians for alleged involvement with Palestinian militant groups, such as Hamas – see elsewhere in this article. Israel has stated that Peter Hansen, UNRWA's former Commissioner-General (1996–2005) "consistently adopted a trenchant anti-Israel line" which resulted in biased and exaggerated reports against Israel.

Al-Aqsa Intifada 2000– allegations of Israeli interference with UNRWA operations[edit]

During the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which started in late 2000, UNRWA often complained that Israeli road closures, curfews and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza have interfered with its ability to carry out its humanitarian mandate. The Agency has also complained that large scale house demolitions in the Gaza Strip have left over 30,000 people homeless. Israel justifies the demolitions as anti-terrorism measures.[101]

2004 alleged abuse of UN-marked vehicle[edit]

The Israel Defense Forces released a video from May 2004, in which armed Palestinian militants carry an injured colleague into an UNRWA ambulance, before boarding with him. The ambulance driver requested that the armed men leave, but was threatened and told to drive to a hospital.

UNRWA issued a plea [16] to all parties to respect the neutrality of its ambulances.

On 1 October 2004, Israel again lodged accusations against UNRWA. The Israeli Defence Forces released unmanned aerial vehicles and video documenting what they initially claimed was a group of Palestinian militants load a rocket into UN-marked vehicle.[102]

The accusation over the rocket in a UN vehicle has never been substantiated. Hansen responded that the footage was of UNRWA crew members carrying a stretcher into the UN ambulance, stating "While the quality of the video clip is poor, its analysis shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the object carried and thrown into the vehicle is not / cannot be a Qassam rocket".[103] Moreover, Hansen accused Israel of making "baseless accusations" which put UNRWA's ambulance crews in "grave danger".

The Israeli authorities initially dismissed UNRWA's reaction, blaming Hansen for being "anti-Israeli".[104] Later on, however, Israeli General Yisrael Ziv recognized having doubts over whether the object was a rocket launcher or a stretcher.[105][106] Eventually, the Israeli military changed some of its earlier statements and conceded the possibility that the object could have indeed been a stretcher, but did not offer the apology Hansen had demanded.[105][107]

Israel announced its intention to file a strong complaint against UNRWA and demand that Danish diplomat Peter Hansen, UNRWA's head, be removed from office.[108]

6 January 2009 incident[edit]

On 7 January 2009, UNRWA officials alleged that the prior day, in the course of the Gaza War, the Israel Defense Forces shelled the area outside a UNRWA school in Jabalya, Gaza, killing more than forty people. The IDF initially claimed it was responding to an attack by Hamas gunman hiding in the compound, but upon reexamination, said that an "errant shell had hit the school." This statement caused wide criticism of Israel from all over the world.[109] At first, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated in its report that the school itself had been shelled.[110] Three weeks later, this error was corrected by Maxwell Gaylord, the UN humanitarian coordinator, who stated that the UN "would like to clarify that the shelling, and all of the fatalities, took place outside rather than inside the school.[111]

Initially, John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for UNRWA, stated that three artillery shells landed near the school where 350 people were taking shelter. Ging stated that the attack was "horrific" and suggested Israel knew it was targeting a UN facility.[112][113] Later, in an investigation by The Globe & Mail which concluded that Israel did not attack the school, Mr. Ging stated that all three Israeli mortar shells landed outside the school and that he knew that "no one was killed in the school."[113] However the Globe and Mail later issued a retraction and an admission that the story was completely false. http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=476

IDF officials have disputed the accuracy of the UN fatality assessment: "It was not certain that the number of casualties reported by the UN, 43, was accurate and that Military Intelligence noticed Hamas attempts to cover up the identity of those killed in the strike."[109]

November 2002 allegation that an Israeli sniper killed UNRWA employee[edit]

In November 2002 Iain Hook, a British employee of UNRWA, was shot and killed by an Israeli military sniper while working in the Jenin refugee camp, during an operation to locate a Palestinian militant suspected of masterminding a suicide bombing which had killed 14 people earlier in 2002. Peter Hansen, the head of UNRWA at the time criticized the killing: "Israeli snipers had sights. They would have known who the two internationals (non-Palestinians) were. They did not dress like Palestinians."[114]

2014 Israel–Gaza conflict[edit]

During 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, more than 200,000 people were staying in UNRWA schools being used as shelters. UNRWA schools and personnel were in the line of fire during the war. After the war, UNRWA announced nine UNRWA staff members have been killed by Israel raids on UNRWA schools.[115] Israel's Channel 2 claimed in a report that an UNRWA ambulance was used to transport militants. It later retracted that claim, after being confronted with "incontrovertible evidence", in the words of UNRWA.[116] According to UNRWA spokesmen, weapons were found in three vacant UNRWA schools which had been closed for the summer.[117][118][119] UNRWA strongly condemned the activity as a "flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law" and UNRWA staff were withdrawn from the premises.[120] It appears, however, that UNRWA returned weapons to the local government – meaning Hamas.[121]

In another incident, three Israeli soldiers died from a booby-trap in an apparent UNWRA clinic. Subsequent information indicates that the building was not registered with UNRWA, but it had an UNRWA sign on it. The UNRWA sign on the building therefore may have been stolen and placed there by someone, perhaps seeking to protect the building.[122]

See also[edit]


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