It was established following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War by the United Nations General Assembly under resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949. This resolution also reaffirmed paragraph 11, concerning refugees, of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and was passed unopposed, supported by Israel and the Arab states, with only the Soviet bloc and South Africa abstaining.
UNRWA has had to develop a working definition of "refugee" to allow it to provide humanitarian assistance. This maintained that beneficiaries had to have lived in the British Mandate of Palestine for at least two years before fleeing and must have lost both their home and livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, or be the descendant of someone who had.
The UNRWA definition is meant solely to determine eligibility for UNRWA assistance. Under General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), of 11 December 1948, other persons may be eligible for repatriation and/or compensation but are not necessarily eligible for relief under the UNRWA's working definition. Thus a person who is not or who has ceased to be regarded by UNRWA as a refugee for the purpose of receiving relief, may still qualify as a refugee by the common definition.
All Palestinian refugees (as defined) who are registered with UNRWA and are in need of assistance are eligible for help from UNRWA. In 2004, there were 4 million qualified Palestinian refugees registered with the UNRWA.
UNRWA provides facilities in 59 recognized refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It also provided relief to displaced persons inside the state of Israel following the 1948 conflict until the Israeli government took over responsibility for them in 1952.
For a camp to be recognized by UNRWA, there must be an agreement between the host government and UNRWA governing use of the camp. UNRWA does not itself run any camps, has no police powers or administrative role, but simply provides services to the camp. Refugee camps, which developed from tent cities to rows of concrete blockhouses to urban ghettos indistinguishable from their surroundings, house around one third of all registered Palestinian refugees. UNRWA also provides facilities in other areas where large numbers of registered Palestinian refugees live outside of recognized camps.
UNRWA has been criticized by Israeli officials, who say that it supports terrorism and militancy. Other governments, such as those of Bangladesh, Canada, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Turkey, Vietnam, and the Palestinian Authority have praised its work.
UNRWA is the largest agency in the United Nations family, employing over 25,000 staff; 99% of UNRWA's employees are locally-recruited Palestinians. The Agency's headquarters are divided between the Gaza Strip and Amman, Jordan. Its operations are organised into five fields - Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza.
Annual funding for UNRWA is in the order of several hundred million US dollars, the majority of which comes from donor countries. A smaller amount comes directly from the United Nations. Contributions and pledges in 2003 totalled almost US$440 million; the major contributors (based on 2003 figures) were the United States ($134 million), the European Commission ($94 million), the United Kingdom and Sweden.
UNRWA is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations General Assembly and its mandate is renewed every three years.
In the 1960s UNRWA schools became the first in the region to achieve full gender equality. Overcrowded classrooms containing 40 or even 50 pupils are common. Almost all of UNRWA's schools operate on a double shift - where two separate groups of pupils and teachers share the same buildings. Not all refugee children attend UNRWA schools. In Jordan and Syria children have full access to government schools and many attend those because they are close to where they live. UNRWA also operates eight vocational and technical training centres and three teacher training colleges that have places for around 6,200 students.
Rations are distributed to families in UNRWA's special hardship category every quarter. The yearly value of the food is just over US$ 100 per person and most of it is received by the agency in the form of in-kind donations of basic foodstuff, such as flour, rice and dried milk. Finances permitting, the Agency also provides small cash grants to very poor refugee families to help with the purchase of items such as school uniforms and school books or as crisis grants, for example if they lose all their possessions in a house fire.
Most of the concrete-block shelters in the refugee camps were built by UNRWA in the 1950s to replace the tents in which refugees had lived since the 1948 war. Others were built after the 1967 conflict. Although most refugees have been able to make improvements and additions to their shelters over the years, the very poorest refugees often live in shelters that are now in extremely bad condition. Wet, crumbling walls, leaking zinc roofs and rodent infestation cause additional social and health problems. UNRWA has been able to repair hundreds of shelters in recent years, often simply by supplying materials while the families provide their own labour. UNRWA is unable to keep up with the growing numbers of special hardship case families who each year join its waiting list for shelter rehabilitation.
UNRWA created community-based organizations (CBOs) to target women, refugees with disabilities and to look after the needs of children. The CBOs now have their own management committees staffed by volunteers from the community. UNRWA provides them with technical and small amounts of targeted financial assistance, but many have made links of their own with local and international NGOs.
The health of Palestinian refugees resembles that of many populations in transition from developing world to developed world status. Immunisation programmes have vaccine-preventable diseases under control, but there remains a high prevalence of diseases caused by cramped housing and open sewers in the camps and high poverty levels. At the same time, non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes are on the increase. Birth rates are among the highest in the world, with short intervals between pregnancies. Diarrhea and intestinal parasites are particularly common among children because of poor environmental health for the one third of refugees who live in camps. However, infant mortality rates are lower among refugees than the World Health Organisation's benchmark for the developing world. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Al-Aqsa Intifada has led to curfews and closures which have caused a growth in malnutrition, especially among children and nursing mothers. The economic hardships in the territory have driven many refugees away from private health care, increasing the number of patient visits to UNRWA doctors in the Gaza Strip by 61 per cent during the first two years of the conflict.
UNRWA's network of 122 clinics provides free primary healthcare to all registered refugees who ask for it. The clinics are based inside refugee camps or near concentrations of refugees. In 2003 the clinics handled 10 million patient visits - averaging more than 110 visits per doctor per day. Medical services include outpatient care, dental treatment and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. Maternal and child healthcare (MCH) is a priority for UNRWA's health programme. School health teams and camp medical officers visit UNRWA schools to examine new pupils to aid early detection of childhood diseases. All UNRWA clinics offer family planning services with counselling that emphasises the importance of birth spacing as a factor in maternal and child health. Agency clinics also supervise the provision of food aid to nursing and pregnant mothers who need it and six clinics in the Gaza Strip have their own maternity units.
UNRWA provides refugees with assistance in meeting the costs of hospitalisation either by partially reimbursing them, or by negotiating contracts with government, NGO and private hospitals.
The 1.3 million refugees who still live in refugee camps - one third of the total – receive environmental health services from UNRWA. These include such essentials as sewage disposal, the provision of safe drinking water and disposal of refuse. Large scale projects have been carried out in camps since 1989, but many still have inadequate infrastructure, including open sewers. A great many refugee shelters suffer flooding by waste water in winter.
The MMP was launched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1991 in response to the high unemployment and spreading poverty that followed the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 and the Gulf War. In 2003 the MMP expanded into Jordan and Syria to allow UNRWA to help entrepreneurs and the poorest refugees in those fields. Since its inception it has disbursed over 67,000 loans valued at over US$77 million.
As part of its emergency relief activities, UNRWA provides temporary jobs for unemployed breadwinners - a programme that has allowed the Agency to indirectly support 160,000 women and children in Gaza alone. UNRWA has also increased its provision of food aid. Before the conflict UNRWA distributed food to around 20,000 refugee families, it now targets 230,000 families across the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA food parcels typically contain 50 kilograms of flour, five kilograms of rice, five kilograms of sugar, two liters of cooking oil, one kilogram of powdered milk and five kilograms of lentils.
The Agency assists the almost 30,000 refugees whose homes have been destroyed during military operations. UNRWA has provided tents, blankets, kitchen kits, medicines and drinking water, as well as cash assistance to help with renting a new home to those families made homeless. The Agency is also rebuilding and repairing shelters. The focus of the Agency's rebuilding work has been Rafah and Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip and in Jenin camp in the West Bank. In Jenin a donation of US$27 million from the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society allowed UNRWA to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and communal facilities of the camp that were destroyed by the fighting in April 2002.
UNRWA's health programme faces increased demands in the territories because of the injuries, stress and psychological trauma caused by the conflict. The economic impact of closures is also increasing the demands made on the Agency as refugees seek care from the Agency rather than from private providers. UNRWA ambulances and mobile medical teams bring healthcare to communities isolated by closures for long periods.
The crisis has had a particularly marked effect on the refugee children served by UNRWA's schools. Teachers and pupils are often unable to reach their schools and thousands of teaching days have been lost. Schools have come under fire on many occasions and have been used as military outposts and detention centres. The violent events witnessed by the children have caused emotional and psychological trauma and many have suffered the loss of classmates or family members. Examination pass rates have collapsed because of the conflict and UNRWA is running remedial classes in each school to try to compensate for the time lost to education. The Agency has also hired teams of trauma counsellors to work with those children who have been emotionally scarred by their experiences.
To fund its emergency activities in the West Bank and Gaza UNRWA has launched a series of appeals for funds. The first of these was a flash appeal in October 2000 for US$4.83 million. In November 2004 UNRWA launched an appeal for US$186 million to cover emergency operations during 2005.
There has been extensive criticism of the statistics, data collection techniques, and definitions concerning Palestinian refugees by the UNRWA. It has been accused of hiring known militants, perpetuating Palestinian dependency, and demonizing Israel.
In 2006, the UNRWA drew criticism from the US Congressmen Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Steven Rothman (D-NJ). Their letter, sent to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stated in part: "After an exhaustive review of the UN's own audit, it is clear UNRWA is wrought by mismanagement, ineffective policies, and failure to secure its finances. We must upgrade UNRWA's financial controls, management and enforcement of US law that bars any taxpayer dollars from supporting terrorists." UNRWA responded by showing the results of its school students in Syria and Jordan, who outperform their peers in host-government schools. UNRWA also mentioned the difficult conditions in which it operates: its refugee load increased much faster than its budget, while the tightening of the closure regime since the Second Intifada deeply affected the humanitarian situation in the Israeli-occupied territories.
UNRWA has also been criticized by some for being the only United Nations special project dedicated to a specific group of refugees. It has been claimed that this is an example of United Nations anti-Israel bias, and that the Palestinian refugees should be treated equally to all others with refugee status around the world. . Defenders of UNRWA put forward the specific legal status of the Palestinians in 1948, which living under the British Mandate of Palestine, were stateless and therefore not eligible as refugees under the common definition.
UNRWA received public expressions of praise and appreciation by the Nobel Peace Laureates Mairéad Corrigan Maguire and Kofi Annan, by the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon , and by representatives from the European Union, the United States, the Netherlands, Japan, Bangladesh, Cyprus , Jordan , Ghana, and Norway, among others. In 2007, the Permanent Representative of Norway to the United Nations described his country as a "strong supporter" of UNRWA, which acts as "a safety net" for the Palestinian refugees, providing them with "immediate relief, basic services and the possibility of a life in dignity" The same day, the Representative of Iceland praised the fact that
"despite times of exceptional hardship and suffering in the region, UNRWA has been able to deliver substantial results. On the humanitarian front, UNRWA played a central role in easing the suffering of both refugees and Lebanese civilians during its emergency operations in Lebanon and on the Gaza Strip. Under often life-threatening conditions, UNRWA's staff showed relentless dedication to the Agency's responsibilities."Despite their criticisms of the agency, Israeli officials repeatedly confirmed that "Israel supports UNRWA humanitarian mission".
Relations between UNRWA and Israel have often been strained. UNRWA has been under routine attack from the Israeli government and politicians for alleged involvement with Palestinian militant groups, such as Hamas. For example, the Israel Defence Force released a video from May 2004, in which armed Palestinian militants carry an injured colleague into an UNRWA ambulance, before boarding with him. The ambulance driver requested that the armed men leave, but was threatened and told to drive to a hospital. UNRWA issued a plea to all parties to respect the neutrality of its ambulances.
On other occasions, UNRWA buildings have been caught in battles between Israel and Palestinian militants. Several UNRWA employees have been killed or wounded by the IDF. In November 2002 Iain Hook, a British employee of UNRWA was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while working in the West Bank town of Jenin. In 2004, the IDF opened fire on an UNRWA food convoy Further strain has been put on relations by the killing, by Israeli gunfire, of several children in UNRWA schools in Gaza.
Hansen responded that the footage was of UNRWA crew members carrying a stretcher into the UN ambulance, stating "While the quality of the video clip is poor, its analysis shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the object carried and thrown into the vehicle is not / cannot be a Qassam rocket". Moreover, Hansen accused Israel of making "baseless accusations" which put UNRWA's ambulance crews in "grave danger". ,
The Israeli authorities initially dismissed UNRWA's reaction, blaming Hansen for being "anti-Israeli". Later on, however, Israeli General Yisrael Ziv recognized having doubts over whether the object was a rocket launcher or a stretcher. , Eventually, the Israeli military changed some of its earlier statements and conceded the possibility that the object could have indeed been a stretcher, but did not offer the apology Hansen had demanded.
Following Israeli blame of UNRWA, the United States government financed a programme of "Operations Support Officers", part of whose job is to make random and unannounced inspections of UNRWA facilities to ensure their sanctity from militant operations. They reported that no such uses had been detected. In 2004 the US Congress asked the General Accounting Office to investigate media claims that taxpayer's dollars given to UNRWA had been used to support individuals involved in militant activities. The GAO gave UNRWA a clean bill of health.
"Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another." "We demand of our staff, whatever their political persuasion is, that they behave in accordance with UN standards and norms for neutrality".Hansen later specified that he had been referring not to active Hamas members, but to Hamas sympathizers within UNRWA. In a letter to the Agency's major donors, he said he was attempting to be honest because UNRWA has over 8,200 employees in the Gaza Strip. Given the 30 to 40 percent support to Hamas in Gaza at the time, and UNRWA's workforce of 11,000 Palestinians, at least some Hamas sympathizers were likely to be among UNRWA's employees. The important thing, he wrote, was that UNRWA's strict rules and regulations ensured that its staff remained impartial UN servants.
For historical reasons UNRWA schools followed the Jordanian curriculum in the West Bank and the Egyptian curriculum in the Gaza Strip and this practice continued under the Israeli control of those areas between 1967 and 1994. Since 1994 the Palestinian Authority has progressively been replacing the old Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks as new PA-produced textbooks become available. The last of the older books was phased out of UNRWA schools in the autumn of 2004.
In 1999 and 2000, Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, published a study on this subject. Regarding the Palestinian Authority's new textbooks, he states: "The new books have removed the anti-Semitism present in the older books while they tell history from a Palestinian point of view, they do not seek to erase Israel, delegitimize it or replace it with the "State of Palestine"; each book contains a foreword describing the West Bank and Gaza as "the two parts of the homeland"; the maps show some awkwardness but do sometimes indicate the 1967 line and take some other measures to avoid indicating borders; in this respect they are actually more forthcoming than Israeli maps; the books avoid treating Israel at length but do indeed mention it by name; the new books must be seen as a tremendous improvement from a Jewish, Israeli, and humanitarian view; they do not compare unfavorably to the material my son was given as a fourth grade student in a school in Tel Aviv". Brown also described the research into Palestinian textbooks conducted by the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace as "tendentious and highly misleading". However, in an exchange with CMIP Brown notes "my criticism that CMIP's work is 'tendentious and highly misleading' was made before CMIP issued its 2001 report and could hardly have referred specifically to it."
In 2002, the United States Congress requested the United States Department of State to commission a reputable NGO to conduct a review of the new Palestinian curriculum. The Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) was thereby commissioned by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the US Consul General in Jerusalem to review the Palestinian Authority's textbooks. Its report was completed in March 2003 and delivered to the State Department for submission to Congress. Its executive summary states: "The overall orientation of the curriculum is peaceful despite the harsh and violent realities on the ground. It does not openly incite against Israel and the Jews. It does not openly incite hatred and violence. Religious and political tolerance is emphasized in a good number of textbooks and in multiple contexts." Its June 2004 follow-up report notes that "except for calls for resisting occupation and oppression, no signs were detected of outright promotion of hatred towards Israel, Judaism, or Zionism" and that "tolerance, as a concept, runs across the new textbooks". The report also stated that "textbooks revealed numerous instances that introduce and promote the universal and religious values and concepts of respect of other cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, peace, human rights, freedom of speech, justice, compassion, diversity, plurality, tolerance, respect of law, and environmental awareness". However, the IPCRI noted a number of deficiencies in the curriculum, stating "The practice of 'appropriating' sites, areas, localities, geographic regions, etc. inside the territory of the State of Israel as Palestine/Palestinian observed in our previous review, remains a feature of the newly published textbooks (4th and 9th Grade) laying substantive grounds to the contention that the Palestinian Authority did not in fact recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish people. [...] A good number [of maps ...] show Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as one geographic entity (without demarcation lines or differentiated colorings). Historically Palestinian cities (e.g., Akka, Yafa, Haifa, Safad, al-Lid, Ar-Ramla, Beer As-sabe’) are included in some maps that lump together the areas controlled by the PA with those inside the State of Israel. No map of the region bears the name of 'Israel' in its pre-1967 borders. In addition, Israeli towns with a predominantly Jewish population are not represented on these maps." The Summary also states that the curriculum asserts a historically dubious ancient Arab presence in the region, while ignoring any Jewish connection: "The Jewish connection to the region, in general, and the Holy Land, in particular, is virtually missing. This lack of reference is perceived as tantamount to a denial of such a connection, although no direct evidence is found for such a denial." It also notes that "terms and passages used to describe some historical events are sometimes offensive in nature and could be construed as reflecting hatred of and discrimination against Jews and Judaism."