UNRWA's Role Supporting the Palestinian People

For over 70 years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has provided critical humanitarian and human development services to millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.

Following the 2023 Israel-Gaza War, misunderstanding and misinformation surrounding the agency has spurred conversations about the origins of UNRWA, its present role assisting the Palestinian people during crisis, and UNRWA’s unique position to help serve and rebuild in a post-war era.

To help shed light on some of these issues, here are a few things to know about the largest UN refugee assistance program in the region.

The Origins of UNRWA

In 1950, the UN General Assembly (GA) passed Resolution 302 (IV) after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The intent of the body was to carry out direct humanitarian relief and vital work programs for Palestinian refugees. The GA has continued to renew UNRWA’s mandate annually since. 

That mandate is wide in operational scope – supporting food, healthcare and medical services, direct education, employment and job training, and much more. It’s also, however, uniquely narrow in the population it serves: Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defines their constituents 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 War.” Descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration. When the Agency began operations over seven decades ago, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 individuals. Today, nearly 6 million refugees can receive UNRWA services. 

“In Gaza, there is simply no replacement for the critical role of… UNRWA. For years, UNRWA schools, clinics, and relief efforts have served as the only alternative to Hamas in Gaza.”

Ambassador Chris Lu

Historically enjoying bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and past administrations, the U.S. covers about 30% of UNRWA’s budget, making the U.S. the single largest donor at around $300 million annually. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, recently reminded Congress that, “UNRWA provides needed services to the most desperate people among the Palestinians.” Adding to her sentiment, Ambassador Chris Lu recently addressed the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, saying, “In Gaza, there is simply no replacement for the critical role of… UNRWA. For years, UNRWA schools, clinics, and relief efforts have served as the only alternative to Hamas in Gaza.”

UNRWA Education Programs

UNRWA provides quality education to almost 550,000 children across five fields of operation – Gaza, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Unique to the region, UNRWA schools achieved gender parity in the 1960s, reaching generations of Palestinian children with a curriculum centered on UN values.

Internationally recognized outside evaluators – including a 2021 World Bank-UNHCR study – have demonstrated that UNRWA’s educational outcomes are among the best in the region and at the lowest cost per student. In fact, UNRWA’s students in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan “scored an average of a quarter of a standard deviation higher in international assessments than public school children, implying an advantage of almost a year of learning.”

UNRWA’s Aid Mandate

The agency operates a network of 140 primary healthcare centers that supported more than seven million patients between January and October 2023 (numbers that do not reflect response during the 2023 Israel-Gaza War). Utilizing one of the region’s few e-health systems, agency outcomes include reducing the average infant mortality rate from 127 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 1960s, to less than 25 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 2000s.

In Gaza alone, UNRWA provides food assistance to 1.2 million refugees. The Agency’s complex distribution network represents 60% of the food imported into the Gaza Strip each month.

Absent UNRWA, these services would become the full responsibility and financial onus of host countries, including Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, which cannot absorb the cost of supporting millions of additional people.

Learn more at UNRWA

Dispelling Myths about UNRWA

Over the years, UNRWA has been caught in the crosshairs of deep political divides in the region, fueling misunderstanding about the agency. Let’s unpack a few of these untruths.

  • Myth: UNRWA Staff Celebrated the Hamas Attack on Israel

    Following the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas against Israel, images circulated across social media purporting to show UNRWA employees reacting positively to the events.

    In fact, the photos shared were taken in 2014, and depict Palestinians demonstrating outside an UNRWA facility on home construction issues of an internal nature, and had no relation whatsoever to the events of Oct. 7.

    Other reports have suggested that private social media channels replete with anti-Israel sentiment were created for and by UNRWA staff. There is absolutely no evidence of this. UNRWA has a number of internal communications channels the organization uses to interact with their employees that are regularly audited for inflammatory and offensive commentary. The agency has strict codes of conduct in place that apply to staff activities and statements that extend beyond their work hours and responsibilities. Employees in violation of their obligations as UN staff are investigated and, when necessary, disciplined.

  • Myth: UNRWA Curriculum is Anti-Semitic

    Discredited claims against UNRWA include allegations that their curriculum includes anti-Semitic content. Much to the contrary, UNRWA utilizes a curriculum framework that emphasizes UN values including neutrality, human rights, conflict resolution, tolerance, equality and non-discrimination with regards to race, gender, language, and religion. UNRWA reviews all its textbooks against these UN values and uses a Critical Thinking Approach that empowers teachers to address identified issues of concern in alignment with UN values.

  • Myth: U.S. Lawmakers Don't Support UNRWA

    Although the Trump Administration cut off U.S. humanitarian contributions to all Palestinians, including through UNRWA, U.S. government officials from both sides of the aisle have repeatedly praised UNWRA for their historical role in the region and their response to the current situation in Gaza.

    During the period of non-funding, the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN) released its assessment of UNRWA. MOPAN is an organization comprised of 18 countries, including the U.S., that share a common interest in evaluating the effectiveness of major multilateral organizations. Their report states, “UNRWA is competent, resilient and resolute. Its way of working and the results it is achieving in a resource-constrained environment reflect a well-managed organization that delivers.”

    The Biden Administration reversed the ban on UNRWA funding in 2021.