Refugees / UNRWA
The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in 1949 — in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War and the ensuing refugee situation — as a temporary humanitarian organization for Palestinian refugees. But as the refugee issue has persisted over multiple generations, so has UNRWA’s work, providing education, health care, and other social services to over three million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Over time, the agency’s activities have become politicized in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The Israeli government has long argued for UNRWA’s end, blaming it for perpetuating the refugee issue by extending refugee status to the millions of descendents of the original Palestinian refugees. Israelis contend that UNRWA has made Palestinians dependent on its social services, incited against Israel in their education materials, and even aided Hamas terrorists (Hamas rockets have been found hidden in UNRWA schools). UNRWA rejects these criticisms, noting that it is standard practice among refugee bodies to offer multi-generational refugee status. Additionally, UNRWA has condemned Hamas, which it accuses of exploiting its presence in Gaza. And defending its educational role, UNRWA notes that while it has traditionally relied on the curricula of host countries, it has developed an improved review system to address and remove bias.
In 2018, the Trump Administration cut all US aid to UNRWA, citing Israeli criticisms, and expressing hope that UNRWA’s eventual elimination would change the longstanding international definition of Palestinian refugees, to drastically reduce their numbers.The US had been UNRWA’s top donor,
providing $350 million annually. The Administration’s policy has been praised by many leaders in Israel, although Israeli defense officials have warned that UNRWA’s defunding could risk a humanitarian disaster in Gaza and allow Hamas to tighten its control of the territory. Additionally, responses from Palestinian leadership, along with opinion surveys of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, indicate that the refugee issue will likely remain a critical element in the Palestinian narrative and in the diplomatic arena, with or without UNRWA.