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.