How UNRWA threats underscore Palestinians' right of return
On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel was established, and with it, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes.
Out of this exorbitant refugee crisis, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was born.
Beginning operations in 1950, today UNRWA provides humanitarian assistance to nearly six million Palestinians living in exile, specifically operating in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, occupied East Jerusalem, and the occupied West Bank.
UNRWA was established as a temporary initiative and is expected to cease once Palestinian refugees’ right of return is fulfilled. Yet without this, the mandate is continuously renewed every three years.
"Israel wants to take up more Palestinian land and [have] less Palestinian people, and it wants to maintain a Jewish identity. So the repatriation of Palestinians would actually put a threat to that"
In January, UNRWA received an Israeli dossier alleging 12 of the agency’s employees were involved in Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7. Subsequently, UNRWA fired the employees and launched an investigation.
Yet despite these actions, several Western countries have paused their funding to UNRWA — even as reports indicate there’s no evidence to support Israel’s claims. Critics say this will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, which is already on the brink of famine due to Israel’s ongoing war on the enclave.
A longstanding campaign against UNRWA
UNRWA has faced a relentless slew of attacks since its inception, with its funding a crucial target. The agency receives the majority of its funding from UN member states.
“This reliance on voluntary contributions and financial support actually subjects it to changing political interests and agendas,” Shatha Abdulsamad, an analyst at the Palestinian policy network, Al-Shabaka, told The New Arab, adding this strong dependency “makes displaced Palestinians and refugees pawns and political manoeuvres, which just further exacerbates their vulnerability.”
The driving factor behind these continued attacks, experts agree, is UNRWA’s founding mission serving as a reminder to Israel of Palestinians’ right to return.
UNRWA arose out of the UN’s Conciliation Commission for Palestine’s inability to resolve the refugee crisis within its mandate, acting as a way to help refugees pending a solution to their plight.
“Israel wants to take up more Palestinian land and [have] less Palestinian people, and it wants to maintain a Jewish identity. So the repatriation of Palestinians would actually put a threat to that,” Abdulsamad said. “Stemming from that premise, Israel has long spearheaded that campaign against UNRWA and therefore it’s suitable for Israel to weaponise UNRWA and to eliminate the Palestinian right of return once and for all.”
Beyond Israel’s recent claims against UNRWA, the agency came under attack when, in 2018, then-United States President Donald Trump’s administration cut all funding to UNRWA — a roughly $300 million annual budget. Then-US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, defended the cuts by questioning the current number of Palestinian refugees.
This issue emerged again, two years later, when Republican members of Congress sent Trump a letter requesting to declassify a report on the approximate number of Palestinian refugees.
“The issue of the so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ of 5.3 million refugees to Israel as part of any ‘peace deal’ is an unrealistic demand, and we do not believe it accurately reflects the number of actual Palestinian refugees,” they said in the letter.
Donor countries often condition aid when it comes to textbooks in UNRWA schools, too. Such as in 2021, when the European Parliament blocked €20 million under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, which alleged UNRWA textbooks encourage violence and promote anti-Semitism. The parliament even passed a resolution condemning UNRWA that year, saying its curricula incite hatred.
Jørgen Jensehaugen, researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, explained the textbook issue is merely based on a misunderstanding.
“UNRWA doesn’t teach its own textbooks, it teaches the textbooks of the host state where they're working,” Jensehaugen said.
As UNRWA undergoes yet another attack, Abdulsama considers when Israel’s allegations were revealed as suspicious.
“It's a form of retribution for the ICJ [International Court of Justice] ruling,” Abdulsama said. “The timing of it is actually very malicious, especially at a time when the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, are facing a looming famine, genocide, and a very heightened and dire need for humanitarian aid.”
UNRWA: Not just Gaza
UNRWA has said it could cease operating by the end of February or early March, if funding isn’t renewed. While these cuts threaten to exacerbate the situation in Gaza, they also impact UNRWA’s work in other countries.
“It's not just an aid organisation that's delivering emergency assistance. It's an organisation that's doing things like trash collection, providing primary schooling, medical clinics,” Shaina Low, communications adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told The New Arab.
“No humanitarian aid organisation in a month would be able to step in and basically take over as a new municipal government in those refugee camps.”
UNRWA has over 30,000 employees in Gaza and thousands more across the Middle East, with its needs growing amid recent crises in Lebanon, Syria, and the ongoing Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza.
“The requirements for simply sustaining a population have skyrocketed. And at the same time, UNRWA funding has not proportionally increased,” Susan Akram, director of Boston University Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, said, explaining how the agency was already immersed in a funding crisis before October 7 amid chronic underfunding.
The UK, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all significantly reduced their contributions in recent years, with UAE’s amount reaching zero in 2022.
Experts argue freezing UNRWA’s funding doesn’t just wipe out a critical source of aid, but the Palestinian question as well.
“Dismantling UNRWA operations altogether risks the fact that the only standing international commitment towards the right of return will be demised,” Abdulsama said.
“And this will effectively undermine and jeopardize not only the standing of Palestinian refugees but also their collective rights of return.”
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.
Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum