United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)


* Agency of the United Nations that was created to assist Arab refugees in 1950

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) defines itself as “a relief and human development agency, providing education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid to over 4.3 million refugees living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and the Syrian Arab republic.” With more than 27,000 staff, almost all of them refugees themselves, UNRWA is by far the largest UN operation in the Middle East. Its budget for the year 2006 was $470.9 million.

Created by the United Nations General Assembly, UNRWA began operations on May 1, 1950, with the intent that it would be disbanded fairly soon — once the Palestinian refugee problem was solved. In the absence of a solution to that problem for well over a half-century, however, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed the Agency’s mandate.

UNRWA’s major programs include the following:

  • Health: This program “aims to protect, preserve and promote the health of Palestine refugees and to meet their basic health needs” — such as primary health care; nutrition and supplementary feeding; assistance with secondary health care; and environmental health in refugee camps.
  • Relief and Social Services: This program “supports the poorest refugee families who are unable to meet their own basic needs,” offering food aid, poverty alleviation, emergency relief, shelter rehabilitation, and community development.
  • Education: “UNRWA operates one of the largest school systems in the Middle East and has been the main provider of basic education to Palestine refugees for nearly five decades. The Agency provides primary and junior secondary schooling free of charge for all Palestine refugee children in the area of operations. Vocational and technical training courses are given in the eight UNRWA vocational training centers. The Agency also runs an extensive teacher-training program, and offers university scholarships to qualified refugee youth.”
  • Microfinance and Micro-Enterprise: UNRWA launched this program in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1991, “in response to rapidly deteriorating economic conditions marked by high unemployment and spreading poverty following the outbreak of the first intifadah in 1987 and the Gulf War.” The program is organized around funds that make loans to small-scale enterprises in those regions.

Ninety-six percent of UNRWA operations are financed by voluntary contributions, mostly in the form of cash, from a number of national governments. The largest donor is the United States, which provides fully one-third of the Agency’s funding. The other leading donors are the European Commission and the governments of Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states contribute only 2 percent of UNRWA’s budget. 

According to UNRWA’s definition, Palestinian refugees include not only the roughly 700,000 people who actually fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but all of their descendents in subsequent generations as well. UNRWA also counts, as refugees, all Arabs who have applied for relief in its camps, regardless of when they arrived or from where they came. Even when those people move out of the camps (which are more accurately described as towns) and become residents or citizens of another country (only Jordan will grant them citizenship), UNRWA continues to classify them as “Palestinian refugees.” Consequently, UNRWA places the current number of such refugees at more than 4 million. Insisting that these refugees not be repatriated into their host countries, the Agency considers their true home to be “Israeli-occupied Palestine.” Because of such policies, Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes has said: “UNRWA has outlived its utility and should be dismantled.”

Nearly all teachers in UNRWA schools belong to unions affiliated with terrorist organizations such as Hamas (and other groups with al Qaeda connections). As a result, these schools (and the textbooks used therein) teach children to hate Jews and Israelis and to glorify suicide bombers as “martyrs.” Moreover, the refugee camps for which the Agency is responsible are major centers of Arab terrorism. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly all the missile attacks from Gaza into Israel originate in UNRWA-administered regions; the UNRWA-run camp in Jenin is one of the leading terrorist hotbeds in the world.

UNRWA frequently registers complaints with the media regarding the Israeli Defense Force’s alleged humanitarian “abuses” in Gaza, which, according to the Agency’s Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd, include the siege of Gaza, the targeted killings of “suspected militants,” and incursions into densely populated neighborhoods, causing terror among the civilian population. All of this, says UNRWA, “has badly shaken the society.”

At a September 7, 2006 press conference, AbuZayd openly criticized the UN directive barring all staff from having any contact with Hamas. “We should engage with them [Hamas],” said AbuZayd, “and encourage them, discuss with them. This is a movement that has been more or less underground and had little contact with the outside world. It needs to hear from other people and we are discouraged from doing that.”  

In the summer of 2003, the Hamas organization won more than 90 percent of the vote in elections to determine who would run the UNRWA workers’ union in the Arab refugee camps of Gaza. These election victories had grave implications: In October 2004, Israel’s United Nations ambassador Dan Gillerman sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan containing documentation that Hamas was using UN ambulances to smuggle arms and terrorists through the Gaza Strip; Gillerman also demanded the dismissal of Peter Hansen from his position as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, and called for the United Nations to conduct a full investigation of the Agency.

Gillerman’s charges were supported by a May 2004 televised report that armed Palestinian terrorists who had just murdered six Israeli soldiers in southern Gaza, used an ambulance owned and operated by UNRWA to flee the scene of their crime. Hamas activist Nidal ‘Abd al-Fataah ‘Abdallah Nizal, who worked as a UNRWA ambulance driver, confessed to also having used his official UN vehicle to bypass security and transport arms, explosives and terrorists — as did senior UNRWA employee Nahed Rashid Ahmed Attalah. Though Peter Hansen initially denied that his organization’s vehicles were being exploited in this manner, a few months later he told Canada’s CBC TV: “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don’t see that as a crime.”

UNRWA’s total budget for 2012 was $907,907,371, of which $644,701,999 (71 percent) came from the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan. As of June 2013, the U.S. alone had given the Agency $244.5 million during the first half of that year.

On August 9, 2013, Dr. Fares Haider, dean of student affairs for UNRWA in Jordan, placed on his personal Facebook page a poster bearing these words: The two most important rules in order to be successful: the first: never give up. The second: remember the first rule.” — Adolph Hitler.  Haider captioned the page: “Military rules for success … good morning all.”

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