Middle EastAnalysis

Amid Israeli pressure to dismantle it, the Unrwa is indispensable to Palestinians

The agency is an essential provider of protection, food, health and education to millions of people

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) acts as a quasi-Palestinian state for stateless Palestinians who depend on the 75-year-old agency for protection, food, shelter, health, education, vocational training and employment. During times of war and trauma, Unrwa also provides personal security and psychological support for stressed children and adults.

Despite Israeli pressure to dismantle Unrwa, the agency is an indispensable institution for Palestinians and cannot be replaced by a collective of specialised aid groups such as the World Food Programme or World Health Organisation

With war raging in Gaza, Unrwa is supplying food aid to 1.2 million of the strip’s 2.3 million Palestinians while 1.9 million displaced Gazans are residing in 154 Unrwa schools or nearby. Since March 22nd, Israel has denied Unrwa food convoys access to northern Gaza, where the 300,000 people who have remained despite heavy fighting face famine and 23 children have died of starvation while scores suffer from acute malnutrition.

Founded in December 1949 to care for more than 700,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes during Israel’s 1948 war of establishment, Unrwa has survived one conflict after another in the Palestinian territories as well as warfare in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, which are host countries to Palestinians.


When challenged by Israelis and its allies, who see Unrwa as perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, Unrwa directors and commissioners-general have long argued the agency must be preserved as a source of stability in a troubled region.

Today, the Unrwa quasi-state has a population of 5.9 million registered citizens, including the original refugees and their descendants. In its five areas of operations, Unrwa runs 58 camps, sheltering about a third of the refugees, and employs 30,000 staff, two-thirds of whom are teachers, as education is the agency’s consuming task. Unrwa operates 706 schools with 543,000 students, and 140 primary health centres with more than 3,000 health workers.

In recent television interviews, Palestinian engineer Loay Elbasyouni gave credit to his Unrwa school in northern Gaza for giving him the head start in his career with the US space agency where he designed an experimental helicopter launched on the surface of Mars.

Unrwa’ s enduring problem has always been funding. The agency relies on voluntary contributions rather than a sum from the overall UN budget. Former Unrwa spokesman Chris Gunness pointed out that the UN General Assembly had given Unrwa “a quasi-government mandate but not a government budget”.

Before former US president Donald Trump cut Unrwa funding in 2018, Washington had contributed about a third of Unrwa’s annual budget.

While his successor, Joe Biden, restored $235 million in 2022 and $422 million in 2023, he suspended the US contributions for 2024 after Israel accused a dozen of Unrwa’s 13,000 Gaza staff of involvement in the October 7th attack by Hamas. Last week the US Congress maintained the cut until March 2025.

Without demanding evidence, the EU and 15 countries, including Germany, Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and Japan, followed the US example, depriving Unrwa of a total of $450 million of its current budget of $1.5 billion.

The EU, Australia, Finland, Sweden, Canada and Iceland have resumed funding. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, and Iraq have pledged a total of $110 million while Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Indonesia have also stepped up. Ireland – which maintained funding – boosted its expected contribution from €7 million to €20 million.

Unrwa spokeswoman Juliette Touma told The Irish Times: “Unrwa, on behalf of the Palestine refugees, is extremely grateful to the generous and consistent support from Ireland.” She said Ireland’s recent contributions to the agency – along with similar contributions from other countries – “allow Unrwa to continue its work for Palestine refugees, including in Gaza, until end of May”.