Why Israel wants to end UNRWA and what its closure would mean

This guide was created by the team at The NEW Humanitarian and curated by Slingshot Media’s advocacy team

Facing allegations of violations of humanitarian neutrality, a funding freeze by major donors, and calls by Israeli officials for it to be dismantled, UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees is at a breaking point, according to its director-general Philippe Lazzarini. The crisis is threatening to collapse the largest aid agency in the Gaza Strip even as children have begun to die of malnutrition and dehydration due to Israel’s five-month bombardment and siege of the enclave.

The immediate cause of UNRWA’s troubles stems from Israeli allegations in January that 12 of its around 13,000 staff members in Gaza were involved in the deadly 7 October Hamas attacks into Israel, which precipitated the current Israeli military campaign and siege.

  • At a glance: 
  • UNRWA is facing a major crisis that could collapse its operations after key donors – including the US, Germany, and the EU – froze around $450 million in funding.
  • This followed Israeli allegations that 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in Hamas’ 7 October attacks on Israel. 
  • Israeli politicians, who see UNRWA as preserving Palestinian refugees’ right to return and therefore a threat to the maintenance of the Jewish majority in Israel, want to see UNRWA dismantled.
  • But Israel relies on UNRWA to provide aid and services to people in the occupied Palestinian territories – something Israel, as the occupying power, is legally obligated to do.
  • UNRWA was created in 1949 as a temporary aid and job creation agency until a permanent solution could be found for Palestinian refugees. Seventy-five years later, it has grown into a massive provider of education, healthcare, social services, and more.
  • UNRWA is by far the largest aid organisation operating in the Gaza Strip, which is facing a humanitarian catastrophe due to five months of Israeli bombardment and siege.
  • Overall, 5.9 million Palestinian refugees are eligible for UNRWA’s services, and the agency operates in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
  • If UNRWA is forced to scale back operations or shut down, it would have major short and long-term consequences in Gaza and for Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.

Following the allegations, major donors – including the US, Germany, and the EU – froze about $450 million in funding to the agency. As a result, UNRWA is looking at having to start scaling back its operations this month, Lazzarini told The New Humanitarian in an interview.

Since the initial allegations, Israel has put forward a series of similar, largely unsubstantiated claims aimed at linking UNRWA to Hamas. In response, the UN has launched an internal review and an external investigation led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna.

The current controversy, however, has roots that go far deeper than the alleged involvement of UNRWA staffers in the 7 October attack on Israel, according to experts and current and former UNRWA staff who spoke with The New Humanitarian.

For decades, Israel has relied on UNRWA to provide services to Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories – something Israel, as the occupying power, is required to do under international law. At the same time, Israeli politicians and pro-Israel influence groups have long accused the agency of anti-Israel and anti-semitic bias, and of being infiltrated by Palestinian militants.

One of the reasons the agency is a lightning rod for controversy is because it has become a “symbol of the unresolved plight of [Palestinian] refugees”, according to Lex Takkenberg, a former UNRWA administrator who worked at the agency for 30 years, including as general counsel and chief ethics officer.

UNRWA was created in 1949 to provide aid, including food, healthcare, and education, to people – initially both Palestinian and Jewish – forcibly displaced from their homes during the war and violence that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

In 1952, Israel took over responsibility for providing support to around 17,000 Jews who had been forcibly displaced. The more than 700,000 displaced Palestinians remained under UNRWA’s mandate, as well as their descendants. Later, Palestinians displaced by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which led to the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, were also added to UNRWA’s mandate.

Today, around 5.9 million people are eligible for UNRWA’s services, and the agency operates in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. What was supposed to be a temporary humanitarian programme has grown into a massive service provider that would be politically explosive and logistically difficult – if not impossible – to replace.

“UNRWA is a temporary organisation which unfortunately has now lasted for 75 years. And these 75 years are nothing else than the expression of the international community’s failure to have promoted a fair and lasting political solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],” Lazzarini told The New Humanitarian.

The campaign to dismantle UNRWA

According to Jørgen Jensehaugen, a researcher focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, when it comes to UNRWA, there’s one thing both Palestinians and Israelis agree on: The agency helps perpetuate the hopes of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to one day return to the lands they were forced to leave in 1948.

“Palestinians see any weakening of UNRWA as a weakening of their rights,” said Jensehaugen. “In an ideological argument, Israel just wants [UNRWA] to go away, hoping that that will undermine the whole claim of Palestinians having a right to return.”

Israel is supposed to be both a Jewish and a democratic state, and the return of a large number of Palestinian refugees is seen as an existential threat to maintaining a Jewish majority. Currently, Israel has a population of about 9.8 million, including around 7.2 million Jews and just over 2 million Palestinians, referred to by Israel as Arab Israelis. Another 2.7 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and about 2.3 million live in Gaza.

Israeli officials and pro-Israel groups have made no secret of their desire to see UNRWA dismantled. Writing on X (formerly Twitter) on 27 January, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said his office aims to promote “a policy ensuring that UNRWA will not be a part of the day after” in Gaza. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said “UNRWA’s mission has to end”.

In addition to the funding suspension, the Israeli government and politicians have also taken steps to hamper UNRWA’s ability to operate by: blocking shipping containers in the Israeli port of Ashdod destined for UNRWA in Gaza carrying enough flour for 1.1 million people for five months; rescinding tax exemptions UNRWA receives as a UN agency; attempting to shut down UNRWA’s offices in occupied East Jerusalem; and limiting the duration of visas for international UNRWA staff. The agency’s Israeli bank also recently froze its account.

Israeli officials eventually allowed the flour shipment to enter Gaza on the condition that the World Food Programme control the delivery, not UNRWA.

The moves have come despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, ordering Israel on 26 January to take “immediate and effective” steps to enable the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza. The order was part of the court’s interim ruling in the case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.

Since then, Israeli restrictions on aid entering Gaza, ongoing hostilities, the absence of a humanitarian deconfliction process, attacks on aid convoys, the desperation of the population, and the moves against UNRWA have prevented UN agencies and NGOs from mounting a meaningful aid response, according to aid organisations and experts.

Impact of the funding freeze

On the ground in Gaza, it is difficult to parse the effects of the crisis facing UNRWA from the myriad other factors impeding the humanitarian response. But UNRWA’s staff and infrastructure in the enclave dwarfs that of any other UN agency or NGO, and, if it is forced to reduce or cease operations, that would have major short and longer-term consequences, according to experts. 

Residents of Gaza The New Humanitarian spoke to by phone described an already dire situation.

“This is an unjust world. They kill us with hunger, and when we search for food, they kill us with bullets.”

Asma Abdel Hamid, 50, who lived in northern Gaza prior to 7 October and relied on regular food aid from UNRWA, said she has been living in a refugee camp in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza with seven of her family members for about two months after being displaced from her home.

She used to get enough flour, rice, lentils, chickpeas, sugar, oil, and milk from UNRWA every three months to meet her family’s needs until the next top up. Now, that has been reduced to only flour, and she’s worried that even that will be taken away if UNRWA is forced to scale back its operations.

In December, desperate to feed his family, her husband’s nephew tried to take food from an aid truck in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza and was shot dead – by whom, Abdel Hamid said she doesn’t know.

“This is an unjust world. They kill us with hunger, and when we search for food, they kill us with bullets,” she said. “It does not matter who killed him; everyone participated in this crime.”

Abdulkarim Qassem, a 47-year-old father of seven, was displaced from his home in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City by Israel’s military campaign. Qassem and his family first went to an UNRWA building that has been transformed into a shelter for displaced people in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. But several weeks ago, as Israel intensified its ground campaign in the city, Qassem and his family fled further south to Rafah, where they are now living in a tent pitched on the side of the road.

Rafah is the southernmost part of Gaza and has become a refuge of last resort for around 1.5 million people – 65% of Gaza’s population. Israel is threatening to launch a full-scale ground invasion of the area.

Due to its proximity to the two border crossings where aid has been allowed to enter, as well as the difficulty of transporting aid elsewhere in Gaza, Rafah has received around 45% of the food assistance that has been distributed in the enclave. But Qassem said there is no clear mechanism for receiving aid.

When he was in the UNRWA shelter in Khan Younis he said he received flour, rice, and other food items each week. Now, that has been reduced to a regular can of beans and a can of peas per week and flour once a month, which Qassem and his wife need to stretch to feed themselves, seven children, and Qassem’s elderly parents.

People stand at the entrance gates of an UNRWA school.
An UNRWA school in Rafah, southern Gaza that has been turned into a shelter for Palestinians displaced by Israel’s military campaign in the enclave.

The decision of major donors to suspend funding to UNRWA – on top of the Israeli siege and military campaign – is exposing him and others in Gaza to the risk of famine, Qassem said.

Although the situation is less dire elsewhere in the region, Palestinian refugees who depend on UNRWA’s services in other settings are also worried about the impact of the funding freeze and calls to shut down the agency.

In Lebanon, Yusra Abu Jarad, 60, lives in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country, located close to the city of Saida. UNRWA provided cancer treatment for her husband, who died 10 years ago. She now relies entirely on the agency for food aid and treatment for chronic health conditions. “A real catastrophe will befall me if UNRWA stops its services,” she told The New Humanitarian by phone.

In the Al-Nayrab refugee camp near the city of Hama in Syria, Mohammad Youssef, a Palestinian refugee, uses his $30 daily pay as an UNRWA school maintenance worker to help support 15 family members. “Stopping it means facing complex suffering in a country that has suffered from the scourge of war for years,” he said.

From temporary solution to vital service provider

Today, UNRWA runs over 700 schools in the five territories and countries where it operates, providing education to more than half a million children. It has 140 primary healthcare clinics that receive more than 7 million patient visits per year. It provides emergency food support; runs microfinance programmes; rehabilitates houses and infrastructure in refugee camps; and employs over 30,000 people (13,000 in Gaza), the vast majority of them Palestinians.  

All of these functions are far beyond what the UN had imagined when it established UNRWA in 1949.

In 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, saying Palestinian refugees who wished to return to their homes and live peacefully with their neighbours “should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”.   

But the new Israeli state closed its borders to Palestinian refugees and refused to allow them to return. The NGOs the UN was relying on to support the refugees saw that this wasn’t going to change, and they feared that prolonged aid would make refugees hopeless and dependent, explained Jalal Al Husseini, an associate researcher at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient in Jordan who has written extensively about the history of UNRWA.

By 1949, the NGOs were warning that they were reaching their limits and would not be able to continue their aid efforts: The UN needed a successor organisation to take over the responsibility of providing aid.

Despite its perception today as a symbol of the Palestinian right of return, the original US-written drafts of UNRWA’s mandate envisioned an organisation that would integrate Palestinians into host communities and did not mention Resolution 194. But Arab states intervened to make sure the version of the mandate that was adopted did not override the right of return.

The tension between preserving the right of return and working towards integration created an agency expected to be all things for all people: to the US and many at the UN, UNRWA was a temporary organisation that could encourage refugees to be self-sufficient and to see their migration as permanent; to Palestinian refugees, UNRWA’s role was to provide aid and services while they waited – ideally to return home. In this sense, UNRWA was born in “original sin”, Takkenberg argues.

By the mid-1950s, it was already becoming clear that the goal of resolving the Palestinian refugee issue by integrating them into neighbouring host countries would not come to fruition.

For their own internal political reasons, and to varying degrees, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria all resisted allowing Palestinian refugees to fully integrate. And refugees themselves insisted on their right to return to their homes, even as their displacement became increasingly prolonged.

UNRWA turned to the UN General Assembly to ask for guidance on how it should continue, but received little. That lack of clarity, coupled with the lack of a solution for Palestinian refugees at the political level, has guided the agency’s evolution, Al Husseini said.

“UNRWA grew incrementally because of the lack of a solution,” he said. “[UNRWA’s mandate] is bad because it’s very vague, but it’s good because it’s very flexible.”

The international community was supposed to take on the challenge of finding a long-term solution for Palestinian refugees through another UN body, the Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). But by the mid-1960s the UNCCP was effectively defunct – although it continues to issue yearly reports that simply state there’s “nothing new to report”.

Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees in the countries and territories where UNRWA operates are also specifically excluded from the mandate of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which was created one year after UNRWA.

This has made Palestinians “the only category of forced displaced without an international agency seeking or providing not just humanitarian assistance and protection, but, like UNHCR does, pursuing durable solutions”, Takkenberg said.

UNRWA’s complicated relationship with Israel

For the first nearly two decades of its existence, UNRWA did not operate in territories under Israeli control. That changed, however, when Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. 

Within days of taking control of the territories, the Israeli government asked UNRWA to continue providing aid and services to refugees in the occupied territories – functions Israel would have otherwise been legally obliged to fulfil. 

At the same time, Israeli politicians almost immediately began criticising UNRWA’s education programmes, calling the textbooks used in the agency’s schools anti-Israel and antisemitic – allegations that Israeli critics of UNRWA continue to repeat.

Now, much of Israel’s security and military establishment see the agency as “a massive benefit”, according to Jensehaugen, the Peace Research Institute Oslo researcher.

“The more ideological you go on the spectrum, the more anti-UNRWA you are – for what it represents, not actually what it delivers.”

“[UNRWA] ensures there’s a modicum of stability and a bare minimum of a state, in a sense,” in Gaza and in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Jensehaugen said. “Without UNRWA, those camps very much collapse, and that would be a boon to the radical groups and extremists who would then have a much easier time recruiting [and] channelling that anger against Israel.”

“The security apparatus in Israel, they understand this. They want that money to keep going. They want a stable UNRWA,” Jensehaugen added. “But the more ideological you go on the spectrum, the more anti-UNRWA you are – for what it represents, not actually what it delivers.”

Einat Wilf, an author and former member of the Knesset who identifies as a liberal Israeli, told The New Humanitarian the agency has become “an instrument of ensuring that the war of 1948 never ends” by encouraging a Palestinian nationalism through the schools it runs that is “singularly focused on the idea of the destruction of the Jewish state”.

“In many ways, the UNRWA schools become the midwife, the womb, through which Palestinian nationalism is birthed,” Wilf said, echoing a widely held belief by Israeli politicians and policymakers.

Wilf also argued that UNRWA is inherently flawed because nearly all of its staff are Palestinian. “People actually think that there are lovely Norwegians and Swedes in Gaza right now helping people in need. They don’t understand that this is entirely a Palestinian organisation. It’s Palestinian employees. It’s Palestinian teachers,” she said.

She added that UNRWA should immediately be shut down and that food, medication, and all aid into Gaza should stop until Israeli hostages are released. “This is not humanitarian aid; this is resupplying the enemy at a time of war,” Wilf said.

If another UN agency were to take over UNRWA’s mandate to provide aid for Palestinian refugees, she argued that those refugees should only be given aid on the condition that they sign a document disavowing their right to return.

The challenge of replacing UNRWA

Blocking aid from entering Gaza violates international law, according to experts, and it is one of the core allegations in South Africa’s case at the ICJ accusing Israel of committing genocide. 

If UNRWA were to shut down, Israel would be legally obligated to fill the aid and service provision gap the agency would leave behind.

“As the occupying power, Israel remains bound to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to the protected Palestinian population throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, including the Gaza Strip,” said Ardi Imseis, a Queen’s University professor of international law and a former UNRWA and UNHCR official who is working as a counsel on a separate ICJ advisory opinion case examining the legality of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority might step in, but that would require a surge in international funding, according to Takkenberg. In Gaza, it is entirely unclear what entity could fill the gap – especially given the exponentially high level of devastation and large need for aid after months of conflict.

The idea that dismantling UNRWA would bring an end to the right to return or the issue of Palestinian refugees is also an illusion, according to Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesperson. “That is a complete and deliberate misunderstanding of refugee law and practice,” Gunness said. “It’s like saying that if you get rid of Oxfam, you get rid of poor people.”

A new agency would also face the same challenges around humanitarian neutrality that UNRWA has to try to navigate – something which, experts argue, UN agencies and NGOs around the world regularly face in their work. In Gaza, any agency replacing UNRWA would likely end up employing former UNRWA staff, who already have expertise and experience, rather than being able to find or train thousands of new workers in a crisis situation.

Beyond Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are all grappling with their own political and financial problems. Having to provide education, medical care, aid, and other services for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees suddenly cut off from UNRWA would leave them “in a state of panic”, according to Jensehaugen.

Given the expansive role UNRWA plays, Takkenberg is cautiously optimistic that the international community won’t allow the agency to collapse. “UNRWA seems to be such a significant and important instrument for the broader international community – and especially the countries supporting Israel – that they have always come to the rescue,” he said.

UNRWA recently secured new funding from IrelandNorway, and Spain, and Türkiye and Belgium have pledged to continue funding. The EU and Canada plan to resume paused contributions – although the EU’s funding is contingent on UNRWA following through on commitments to investigate any wrongdoing and make reforms to strengthen its neutrality protocols.

The amount of new and unfrozen funding, however, is not enough to make up the funding gap, and Israel and pro-Israeli advocacy groups seem intent on continuing their campaign to dismantle the agency.

If they succeed, the situation for people who rely on UNRWA’s aid and services in the region – particularly in devastated Gaza – looks bleak, according to Juliette Touma, UNRWA’s communications director. 

The agency will soon be forced to choose how to prioritise life-saving healthcare, shelter, and food aid, and who gets those services – before shutting down completely. “The highest price is going to be paid by Palestinian refugees,” Touma said.

This piece was reported from Paris and London using contacts and other reporters in the region. Edited by Eric Reidy.

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