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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA): An Agenda for Conflict

Filed under: International Law, Israeli Security, Palestinians
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation 

Vol. 14, No. 24    July 20, 2014

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Palestinian Manipulation of the International Community1

  • The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is today one of the largest UN programs. It remains the only UN agency whose area of operation is not global but regional, and that deals with a single group of people. The vast, quasi-governmental machinery into which UNRWA has evolved has made itself susceptible to political manipulation, in particular by extremist groups, in a way that might overshadow its humanitarian accomplishments. The Agency has become an active agent in reaching out to international actors and audiences, and a powerful tool within the anti-Israel propaganda campaign.
  • The educational services provided by UNRWA, particularly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, propagate a non-peaceful point of view, upholding a political vision of a continued struggle against a delegitimized Israel. The Agency’s significant influence on Palestinian educational activities, as well as the fact that more than half of its general budget is dedicated to education, highlight UNRWA’s problematic educational role in the Middle East conflict.
  • The acceptance by UNRWA’s leadership of the mission to enhance the political rights of Palestinians has become a key trend characterizing the Agency’s activity. UNRWA’s so-called “protection mandate” has allowed the Agency to become a fierce advocate for Palestinians in its dealings with Israel, although it remains nearly silent when Arab governments in host countries violate or restrict Palestinian civil rights.
  • UNRWA is regularly involved in political speeches and public pronouncements. The unfettered freedom of speech enjoyed by UNRWA’s leadership defies the fundamental norms of objectivity and neutrality to which UN officials are obliged as international civil servants. In large part, this is the outcome of the fact that UNRWA lacks outside controls over its chief executive, who receives hardly any political guidance from any of the relevant international bodies that are in a position to provide direction.
  • UNRWA has entrenched the idea of “return,” as well as its misconception as a legal right. Also, it has generated an exponential increase in the number of Palestinian refugees. As was stated recently in a report presented to the US Senate Appropriations Committee, UNWRA’s practice in this regard is artificial and misleading, and undermines any possibility of resolving the refugee issue in future peace negotiations.
  • In July 2014, some 20 rockets were found in a school in Gaza, operated by UNRWA.
  • Within the last few years there has been a growing awareness within international political, diplomatic, and academic circles regarding UNRWA’s policies. It testifies to the fact that UNRWA’s position as a stabilizing, “peace servicing” factor in the region and as a guardian of refugee interests is no longer taken for granted. It also reflects the growing quest for accountability and an acknowledgement of the responsibility of donor countries to scrutinize UNRWA’s policies to ensure the strict application of their tax-payers’ money toward relief and humanitarian causes.


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has become one of the largest UN programs, with over 30,000 personnel operating in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. It remains the only UN agency whose area of operation is not global but regional, and that deals with a single group of people. It is also unique in that it directly provides government-like public services to its beneficiaries.

Despite UNRWA’s significant achievements in the humanitarian field, within the last few decades, the vast, quasi-state machinery into which the Agency has evolved has attracted considerable criticism. Recently, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon nominated Pierre Krähenbühl of Switzerland, former Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to the position of UNRWA Commissioner General (CG). Given the tremendous authority and discretion  vested in the hands of the CG in articulating the Agency’s strategies,  now is the appropriate time to consider the recent developments in UNRWA’s controversial practices and trends, calling for awareness and action on the part of UNRWA’s donor countries.

Politicization of Relief

On June 20, 2013, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, decided to visit the Rimal Boys’ School in Gaza. Obviously, choosing a Gazan elementary school out of all of the numerous refugee facilities and camps scattered around the world was no coincidence. Hosted by Filippo Grandi, then CG of UNRWA, Ashton made it clear that her visit was meant to “underline the situation in Gaza”.2 She took that opportunity to share her wish to see the crossings opened, and declared that the EU would continue to be UNRWA’s strongest supporter, providing the required financial aid, and “also the political support.” Clearly, Ashton’s visit was a major achievement for UNRWA, the result of an ongoing, intensive, world-embracing lobbying effort by the Agency’s leadership, tailored to attract international public attention to the political problem of Palestinian refugees.

The bloody Syrian conflict provided another excellent platform for UNRWA’s CG to recall “the plight of Palestinian refugees, resulting in a 65 year-old Diaspora.”3 In a written interview given by Grandi (March 2013), broadly spread by the UN News Center, he expressed grave concern that the situation in Syria might divert international attention away from the “ongoing Gaza blockade.”4 This very same point had been made by Grandi at the Conference on Cooperation Among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development,  hosted by Japan, where he had stated – alongside Salam Fayyad, then- Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister – that Syria’s brutal war “should not make us forget that for Palestinian refugees, as for other Palestinians, the most powerful obstacle to development continues to be the Israeli occupation.”5 Grandi publicly condemned the “tightening grip” of Israeli policies, while presenting UNRWA as the “international political framework” that “strives to afford a measure of human development amidst the carefully structured and ever expanding occupation,” calculated to “slowly but surely alienate Palestinians from their land and assets.”

These recent examples demonstrate the extent to which UNRWA has become an active political actor and a powerful tool within the anti-Israel propaganda campaign. However, proficiency in translating humanitarian hardship into political gains has been only one cause of the growing body of criticism that has been directed at UNRWA over the past few decades. UNRWA’s actual performance, which includes breeding  an atmosphere of hatred and violence among Palestinian youth and even the support of terrorist activities, as well as  upholding the concept of the “right of return” and the determined policy of inflating the number of refugees, has raised concern among experts, commentators, and statesmen alike.

Manipulation of Educational Activities: Improper Use of Facilities & Inappropriate Textbooks

Alarm has been expressed regarding improper activities in UNRWA schools and summer camps. In 2000, prior to the intifada, 25,000 Palestinian children were reported to have received military training in summer camps that had been organized by the PA using UNRWA facilities.6  In 2001, during an awards ceremony held in an UNRWA facility by a Palestinian NGO, an Agency teacher was reported to have publicly praised suicide bombers; a speech by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who at the time was Hamas’ “spiritual” leader, followed.7 In July 2014, some 20 rockets were found in a school in Gaza, operated by UNRWA.8 These incidents – the most prominent to have come to light – were most likely the tip of the iceberg, given the fact that out of the Agency’s 30,000 personnel, fewer than 150 are international staff. The remaining staff consists almost entirely of locals.9

Indeed, as the journalist Linda Polman acknowledged, UNRWA camps have introduced the world to the phenomenon of what are now called “refugee warriors”:

The UNRWA camps that sprang up [half a century ago] in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip have since developed into fully fledged city-states, from which the ‘freedom struggle’ against Israel – and against one another – continues to this day. The recruitment of fresh blood is effortless in the camps; one uprooted generation after another has been trained to fight.10

James Lindsay, UNRWA’s former Legal Advisor, also concluded in his in-depth 2009 report, “Fixing UNRWA,” that UNRWA makes no attempt to remove individuals who support extremist positions. The Agency has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from its ranks, while taking “no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, from joining its staff.”11 Also, the Agency does not check up on staff members to see what activities they are engaged in outside office hours. The fact that there are some UNRWA staff members who support violence, terrorism, and extremist political philosophies does not seem to particularly bother UNRWA’s leadership, as was expressed by former CG Peter Hansen in 2004:

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.12

Moreover, even staff members who come from the refugee camp population who do not agree with extremist views can hardly express any disagreement. Allegations of improper speech or misuse of UNRWA facilities, therefore, remain difficult to prove, as “virtually no one is willing to be a witness against gang members.”13 This is probably the actual reason behind the fact that hardly any incidents of improper use of language or power have come to light, not – as some commentators have presumed – that UNRWA has become more meticulous in screening for the use of its schools.

This became more evident recently, when new video footage entitled “Camp Jihad” emerged, showing the curriculum of Palestinian children in UNRWA summer programs in the Gaza Strip and Balata refugee camp (north of Nablus), which incite hostility towards Israel and the Jews.14 The documentary shows young campers being educated about the “Nakba”15 and taught about “the villages they came from,” such as Acre, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Haifa, Jaffa, Lod, Nazareth, Safad, and even Tel-Aviv (Sheikh Muwannis) – all cities within sovereign Israel. In the documentary, the director of the Gaza camp explains that these programs are meant to motivate the youngsters “to return to their original villages,” expressing her deep gratitude to UNRWA for financing the camp. One scene shows a teacher telling a group of young students a story about the “wolf” – that is, the Jews who brutally expelled their parents from their peaceful sea-side “palaces and villas.” Another teacher tells a group of young campers that “with education and jihad we will return to our homes; we will wage war.” Evidently, the indoctrinating messages are well absorbed, as several scenes show young girls singing “I will not forget my promise to take back my land” and “we are filled with rage.” A young camper declares to the camera that she “will defeat the Jews,” who are “a gang of infidels” that “don’t like Allah,” while in another scene, a young boy explains that “the summer camp teaches us that we have to liberate Palestine.”

The continued use of inappropriate textbooks in UNRWA schools, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, also remains a source of much controversy, despite the fact that various sources have repeatedly raised the issue of a hostile attitude towards Israel and the Jewish people, promoted by the schoolbooks.

A recent ten-year research study regarding the Palestinian curriculum at UNRWA schools,16 found three fundamental negative attitudes in the presentation of the Jewish/Israeli “other”: denial of the legitimacy of the State of Israel; demonization of the State of Israel; and advocacy for the violent struggle for Palestinian liberation. According to the research report, PA schoolbooks, for example, do not recognize any Jewish rights or Jewish holy places in Palestine, but merely “greedy ambitions.” The name of the state, “Israel,” does not appear on the maps (or within textual material) and Jewish cities and regions within Israel proper are presented as exclusively Palestinian. Israel’s Jewish population is not counted among the country’s legitimate inhabitants,  who are comprised solely of Israeli Arabs and Diaspora Palestinians. Demonization of Israel presents the country as an occupying entity, existing at the expense of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and as a source of many evils committed against the Palestinians and other Arabs. Consequently, no peaceful solution to the conflict has been advocated in PA books that are used in UNRWA schools. Instead, the books advocate a violent struggle for liberation, not restricted to the West Bank and Gaza, and underlined by the notions of Jihad and Shahadah (martyrdom).


Altogether, the educational services provided by UNRWA to Palestinian students help to propagate a non-peaceful point of view, upholding a political vision of a continued struggle against a delegitimized Israel, until its eventual destruction. By maintaining the policy of non-involvement in the local curricula taught in its schools – a policy that should not be taken for granted in the first place by a UN body – as well as by refraining from screening the use of its facilities and by ignoring the “unofficial” activity of its local staff, UNRWA at best ignores the obvious.17 The Agency’s relatively powerful influence on Palestinian educational activities, as well as the fact that more than half of its general budget is dedicated to education,18 further highlight UNRWA’s problematic educational role in the Middle East conflict.

Self-Proclaimed “Protection Mandate” & Political Advocacy

The acceptance by UNRWA’s leadership of the mission to enhance the political rights of Palestinians at large, not only refugees, has gradually become a key trend, characterizing the Agency’s activity. Particularly since the first Intifada (1987), and following the request of the UN Secretary General that UNRWA expand its activities to provide protection for refugees and non-refugees alike on an emergency basis and as a temporary measure, UNRWA has unilaterally expanded its mandate to include ”protection” and to encompass all Palestinians.19 The Agency’s international staff, including its Refugee Affairs Officers in the West Bank and Gaza, which had been nominated to implement UNRWA’s so-called “protection mandate,” had become intensively involved in publicity activity – that is, the collection and collation of information on protection issues, and their publication – either through reports or by making this information available to the media. Consequently, as Lindsay observes, even when the first Intifada ended and the Interim Self-Government Arrangements had been signed, “the mandate to protect Palestinians, and the accompanying sense of being joined with the Palestinians against Israel, remained a part of UNRWA’s culture.”20

UNRWA’s endorsement of Palestinian political views was also notable throughout the second Intifada (2000). The Agency’s Refugee Affairs Officers were replaced by Operations Support Officers (OSOs), whose main duty was to provide “general assistance” protection, including “observing and reporting.” The one-sided positions of UNRWA officials were reflected by their focusing on condemning Israeli counter-terrorism efforts, in language associated with war crimes. Criticism of Palestinian-initiated attacks was mild and infrequent. This trend has continued ever since. UNRWA officials frequently condemn the IDF’s attacks on terrorists in response to rocket strikes on Israeli civilian targets launched from Gaza as a “disproportionate, indiscriminate and excessive use of force.”21 On several occasions, former CG K. Abu Zayd even referred to the continuous firing of Qassam rockets into Israel from Gaza as a legitimate “response” to “military incursions.”22

The UNRWA leadership’s political position is also reflected in the continuous, unqualified support it provides to Hamas. Former CG Abu Zayd was particularly active in campaigning devotedly against the West’s isolation of Hamas, calling upon European leaders to engage with the group as a pre-condition for “regaining credibility with Palestinians” and ending “the partisan approach to denouncing violence and to blaming the victims.”23 UNRWA’s leadership also protested the Quartet’s embargo of the Hamas government, thus openly challenging the formal policies of its main donors – the USA and the EU – as well as the UN. Since 2008, UNRWA has echoed Hamas’ views by keenly criticizing the Israeli blockade of Gaza on humanitarian grounds, while at the same time ignoring reports regarding the theft of humanitarian assistance items by the group.24

In practice, UNRWA’s so-called “protection mandate” has allowed the Agency to become a fierce advocate for Palestinians in its dealings with Israel, although the Agency remains nearly silent and indifferent when Arab governments in host countries violate or restrict Palestinian civil rights.25 Such was the case, for example, when nearly 400,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait in 1991, in spite of repeated warnings issued by human rights organizations regarding the large-scale violation of their rights. As well, there is the more recent case of the grievous treatment of Palestinians by the governments of Syria and Lebanon, where Palestinians live, according to Human Rights Watch reports, “in appalling social and economic conditions” due to far-reaching legal restrictions on their access to the labor market and discrimination under property and title laws.26

Political Speech & Public Pronouncement

As cited earlier, UNRWA’s current leadership routinely exploits every international stage and forum available to delegitimize Israel and its policies – a practice that has become an essential part of UNRWA’s extensive global fund-raising campaign. A recent collection of the UNRWA outgoing chief executive’s pronouncements is illuminating. In his farewell speech before the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly (November 2013), Grandi repeated his motto of “profound concern” regarding the preoccupation of the international community with Syria that might divert attention from the situation in Gaza, which was “exacerbated by the closure of tunnels, through which many basic commodities were entering”27 – completely ignoring the systematic abuse of such tunnels by terrorist groups for their massive smuggling operations of missiles, illegal arms and ammunition into the Gaza Strip.28 He further condemned the “stifling restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank including East Jerusalem,” as well as settlers’ behavior, the “possible transfer of the Bedouin community,” and the conduct of Israeli military operations. No censure whatsoever was mentioned of Palestinian terrorist activity against Israeli citizens. “Rockets launched towards southern Israel” were briefly mentioned – not condemned – by Grandi, and only after raising concerns about possible “Israeli military incursions.”

A few days later, at the opening session of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission (AdCom), 29 Grandi suggested that “strengthening the human security of the people of Gaza is a better avenue to ensuring regional stability than physical closures, political isolation and military action.” To obtain this, according to Grandi, “first and foremost, the Israeli blockade, which is illegal, must be lifted.” 30 At the previous round of the AdCom’s meetings, Grandi had blamed “the interests of the Israeli government in sustaining an unresolved situation” and trumping “the real substance of security and stability” in the region, including the fact that “Palestinian leadership remains divided.”31 During a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, in an effort to add Brazil to UNRWA’s donor base, Grandi spoke about the Gaza blockade as “one of the harshest occupation measures of modern times,” and condemned the “complex web of policies and restrictions” that “thrives under the umbrella of military occupation and has been slowly depriving Palestinians of assets and of livelihood.”32

The example set by UNRWA’s CGs has had an impact on other UNRWA officials. A lively example was provided recently by UNRWA’s spokesperson, C. Gunness, who took advantage of a public event to commemorate the anniversary of the 1948 assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte to condemn Israeli officials who were, according to Gunness, “venerated in the most senior echelons of Israeli public life,” and whose “values and rejectionist attitudes towards the UN sadly are reinforced by repetitious nationalistic mythologizing.”33 “Selective ignorance” was his preferred terminology for describing the attitude of these officials, who, according to Gunness, followed Ben-Gurion’s dismissive attitude towards the UN. In this regard, it is no surprise that UNRWA’s Area Staff Regulations and International Staff Regulations34 – which both necessitate “to avoid any kind of pronouncement which may adversely reflect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality which are required by that status,” as well as the engagement “in any political activity which is inconsistent with or might reflect upon the independence and impartiality required by their status” – are easily ignored. After all, if the Agency’s most high-ranking officials disregard their obligation for impartiality, what can be asked – or expected – from the more junior officials, let alone the area staff, made up almost entirely of locals?


In reality, despite repeated statements that UNRWA is not a political organization, the Agency is regularly involved in political speeches and public pronouncements. In large part, this is the outcome of the fact that UNRWA lacks outside controls over its chief executive, who receives hardly any political guidance from any of the relevant international bodies that are in a position to provide direction,35 and thus effectively enjoys wide authority and freedom of action and of speech. Sixty-five years after its establishment, UNRWA still has no settled accountability framework – let alone a broadly accepted, defined mandate – that would enable the international community to scrutinize and to direct the Agency’s daily performance. This situation allows its leadership, as well as interested parties – first and foremost the Palestinian leadership and some Arab (host) countries – to manipulate the vast UN agency, using it as a tool for the promotion of specific political agendas.

Bypassing International Law: Defining a “Refugee” & Upholding the “Right of Return”

UNRWA’s activity involves two complex, interrelated conceptual-legal controversies: the definition of who is a “refugee,” and the existence of a so-called “right of return.” The Agency’s very existence and, moreover, its actual performance, have created a sort of lex specialis in the case of Palestinian refugees, thus bypassing existing legal arrangements and contributing to the complication and misconception of these issues.

Unlike its sister organization, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), mandated since 1950 to coordinate the handling of all refugee communities worldwide, UNRWA was established in that same year to deal exclusively with Palestinian refugees, who were thus excluded from the protection of the UNHCR. Furthermore, while the aims and operations of the UNHCR are based on international instruments – mainly the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – UNRWA was never provided with a specific statute or charter. It has operated since its inception under a general mandate, renewed every three years by the General Assembly. The latter, however, has been offering little guidance concerning the evolution of the Agency’s mandate.36 It therefore remains for the UNRWA CG to determine, in good faith, any questions concerning the mandate.

The decision to establish UNRWA, just a few days after the decision had been taken to establish the UNHCR, was the initiative of Arab countries that feared that the inclusion of Palestinian refugees under the general definition of “refugees” would be interpreted as a waiver of their claim that “return” was the sole solution, and as an implied agreement to resettlement in their territories.37 The creation of a separate UN agency thus allowed them to impose limitations on UNRWA’s mandate to provide temporary assistance, while the UNHCR’s mandate generally provided for refugees’ rehabilitation and resettlement. As was acknowledged by Lt. Gen. Sir Alexander Galloway, director of UNRWA in Jordan, in 1952:

It is perfectly clear that Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.38

UNRWA has consequently developed into a vast welfare agency, providing quasi-governmental services for a huge population of refugees that has grown more and more dependent on its benefits. It has thus entrenched the idea of return, as well as its misconception as a legal right rather than as a privilege or a political claim.39 Today, UNRWA’s leadership does not hesitate to openly advocate the solution of return, as reflected in the words of UNRWA’s outgoing CG who stated recently,

[Palestinians’] refugee status remains unresolved, and their exile continues everywhere. In spite of the passage of time and even where they have lived for two or three generations in relative peace and stable coexistence with host communities, refugee status continues to set them apart as a temporary group, unable to return to a state which they call their own, and to permanent homes.40

The fact that UNRWA was established as a distinct arrangement by the General Assembly also allowed for the development of a unique operational definition of a “Palestinian refugee,” entitled to the Agency’s services. Such a definition, based on UNRWA documents rather than on any formal UN decision, deviates from the general definition recognized under international refugee law, and was tailored to fit the political interests of those states that initially sponsored the Agency. According to UNRWA’s original definition, a Palestinian refugee was a person whose normal place of residence had been Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who had lost his home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 war. Controversially, in 1965, UNRWA decided to create an extension of eligibility to the third generation of refugees – that is, to children of persons who were themselves born after 14 May 1948. In 1982, the Agency took another far-reaching decision to extend eligibility to all subsequent generations of descendants, without any limitation. Further deviating from the accepted norms and arrangements regarding refugees worldwide, UNRWA also registers as “refugees” those who have acquired citizenship in other counties. Given UNRWA’s broad definitions, it is therefore no wonder that the current number of Palestinian refugees, according to the Agency’s figures, amounts to nearly 5 million – half of the number of refugees in the entire world41 – whereas the formal number of original refugees who fled Palestine in 1948 was around 700,000-750,000,42 out of whom only 8 percent are still alive.43 As was stated recently within a report presented to the US Senate Appropriations Committee, UNWRA’s practice in this regard is

artificial and misleading, and undermines any possibility of resolving the refugee issue in future peace negotiations. It manufactures fictional refugees who vastly outnumber the actual remaining 1948 and 1967  “refugees.” The real refugees are today only a small fraction of the five million nominal ‘refugees’ registered with UNRWA.44

Even PA President Mahmoud Abbas has openly acknowledged in the past that “it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million. That would mean the end of Israel.”45

All in all, whereas the mission of the UNHCR is generally to reduce the number of refugees in the world, UNRWA has brought about an exponential increase in the number of Palestinian refugees. Its actions have underlined the issue of Palestinian refugees as a significant, far-reaching practical political concern, not simply a humanitarian one. In this, as acknowledged by Zilbershats and Goren-Amitai, the UN Agency serves as an agent, fulfilling “the political desire of the Arab states and the Palestinians to preserve, expand and perpetuate the refugee problem in order to avoid the need to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”46 Others have also acknowledged the financial aspect of the situation, pointing to the fact that a decrease in the number of refugees would result in the PA losing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid.47

Mythologizing “Refugeeism”

UNRWA’s ideological insistence on the “right of return,” combined with its policy of inflating the number of refugees, greatly contributes to the strengthening of the sense of nationalism and solidarity underlined by feelings of injustice, cultivating a collective memory based on a mentality of victimhood. The Agency’s current leadership plainly – and actively – supports this mindset, as was demonstrated recently, when the outgoing CG showed pride in unveiling UNRWA’s newly digitized archives, under the title: “The Long Journey: Digitizing the Palestine Refugee Experience.”48 The archives, funded by the governments of Denmark and France, Palestinian NGOs, and private sector partners, consist of over half a million negatives, prints, slides, films, and videocassettes covering all aspects of the life and history of Palestine refugees from 1948 to the present day. Describing the UNRWA archives, considered since before their digitization to be part of Palestinian national heritage, Grandi stated,

Collective memory is a vital element of communal identity and this rich archive documents one element of Palestinian identity, the refugee experience….These photos are part of an important legacy….To preserve this legacy is an important duty we have to the Palestinian people. They raise awareness about the history of the Palestinian refugee issue.49

Notably, a traveling exhibition based on the new archives was organized and launched by UNRWA. After being presented in the Old City of Jerusalem, UNRWA scheduled the exhibition to go on tour, starting in January 2014, to key cities in the Agency’s areas of operation, as well as centers of culture and politics in Europe and North America. Such activity exemplifies UNRWA’s decisive role in constructing Palestinian political identity and in mythologizing refugeeism,50 as has been acknowledged by R. Bowker:

[T]he political mythologies and memoirs of Palestinian refugees in which UNRWA is deeply embedded…are central elements in Palestinian politics. Palestinian refugees…are not merely recipients of international aid. Viewed in terms of the historical conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the relationship of the refugees to UNRWA has been instrumental in forging their sense of identity as refugees, their claims for justice, and their perceptions of the roles and responsibilities of other parties relevant to their situation and aspirations.51

Indeed, in recent years, more and more commentators have raised concerns that UNRWA’s determined policies in fact overwhelm voices coming from within Palestinian society – of those who wish their people to abandon the refugee camps without claiming return. A recent article in The Economist, noting that almost 70 percent of West Bank refugees already live outside refugee camps, quotes a camp psychologist admitting that “people don’t even dream anymore of returning.”52 Also, Palestinian leaders privately confess that even if there were a deal with Israel, “the refugees and their offspring will never return en masse to Israel.” Thus, by treating Palestinian refugees as a collective socio-political group, UNRWA overlooks differing attitudes of adaptation to changing political contexts and economic circumstances, as well as studies that show how new “pragmatic” discourses among Palestinians and new symbolic meanings attached to the “right of return” have emerged.53

Donor Countries’ Awareness & the Quest for Accountability

Within the last few decades, under the orchestration of impassioned CGs, UNRWA has made itself highly susceptible to political manipulation. It has become an active agent in reaching out to international actors and audiences, as well as an effective tool in manipulating public opinion worldwide. Evidently, several legal-institutional and political factors have combined to bring about this situation. The “original sin” of creating a unique, “temporary” agency, tailored to meet certain political demands without providing a specific statute or an accountability framework, left UNRWA’s leadership with unparalleled broad discretion and authority to shape the Agency’s mandate and implement its policies. Furthermore, due to the fact that the Agency’s funding system is guaranteed almost exclusively by the voluntary contributions from donor countries, it has to constantly develop sophisticated communication skills to market its mission and secure its funding54 – a mission that has become more and more difficult since the 1990s. Apparently, crucial policy decisions taken throughout the years and bearing far-reaching political consequences, such as those regarding the definition of the Agency’s beneficiaries that resulted in the relentless inflation in the number of Palestinian refugees, or the adoption of initiatives within a so-called, never-clearly-stated “protection mandate,” have inflicted tremendous, steadily-growing budgetary constraints on the Agency. Eventually, the international community has to shoulder the burden of these costs.

UNRWA’s leaders have thus become occupied with efforts to break the vicious circle created by the Agency’s own policies – either by convincing donor countries to enlarge their contributions or by campaigning to persuade other countries to join its donor base.55 Clearly, within these efforts, criticizing the conduct of camp residents, host authorities, or extremist groups for the poor humanitarian conditions of the refugees would lead to their disenfranchisement with UNRWA and would badly affect local refugee communities, and is therefore not an option. However, as was demonstrated, “naming and blaming” Israel definitely is. Mythologizing refugeeism and upholding the “right of return” further validate the Agency’s raison d’être.

Altogether, such activities are not always compatible with the interests and political positions of moderate Palestinian leadership; they obstruct pragmatic efforts to mediate the positions of Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, UNRWA is a vital source of income and a caretaker of unstable factions within Palestinian society. Going against its policies would probably cause much political unrest and be perceived as defying the cause of Palestinian refugees. In this way, the status quo, which allows a growing political involvement by UNRWA, mostly plays into the hands of extremist groups such as Hamas, whose position and practices the Agency has been backing in international fora since it took over the Gaza Strip. The same applies to some of UNRWA’s long-standing policies, such as ignoring the “unofficial” activities of its local staff, refraining from screening the use of its facilities, and non-involvement in the local curricula taught in its schools.

Within the last few years there has been, however, a growing awareness within political, diplomatic, and academic circles regarding UNRWA’s policies, as well as the Agency’s growing tendency toward active political involvement. This has attracted attention to UNWRA’s lack of accountability, as well as to the unfettered freedom of speech enjoyed by its executive officers, defying the fundamental norms of objectivity and neutrality that oblige UN officials as international civil servants.56 Consequently, some donor states have not remained indifferent. In January 2010, the government of Canada decided to cut off funding to UNRWA, redirecting its contributions to the PA, in order to “ensure accountability.”57 In December 2011, the Dutch foreign minister declared its government’s intention to “thoroughly review” its policies toward UNRWA.58 In March 2009, in the US House of Representatives, twenty-two Democrats and Republicans criticized UNRWA for having violated the requirement of neutrality, and providing assistance to Hamas.59 Furthermore, in May 2012, a significant amendment was passed by the US Senate Appropriations Committee and incorporated into the Fiscal Year 2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, directing the Secretary of State to report to the Committee on the current number of UNRWA beneficiaries in different categories (“original” 1948 refugees; their descendants), as well as the extent to which the provision of UNRWA services “furthers the security interests of the US and of other US allies in the Middle East.”60 Recently, the British parliament’s International Development Committee has also launched an inquiry into UNRWA funding within its assessment of the United Kingdom’s development work in the Middle East.61

Such initiatives testify to the fact that UNRWA’s position as a stabilizing, “peace servicing” factor in the region and as a guardian of refugee interests is no longer taken for granted in the eyes of Western donor countries. It also reflects the growing quest for accountability and an acknowledgement of the responsibility of donor countries to scrutinize UNRWA’s policies to ensure the strict application of their tax-payers’ money toward relief and humanitarian causes.


UNRWA is funded by the voluntary contributions of a relatively narrow donor base. Therefore, Western donor countries are in the most effective position to influence and direct UNRWA leadership to prevent the humanitarian agency from being further exploited for the promotion of extremist agendas, the backing of terrorist groups, and the growing involvement of its officials in political speech and public pronouncement. As one commentator put it recently, paraphrasing Clausewitz: “humanitarianism, not just war, has now become the continuation of politics by other means.”62 Indeed, if we are to judge according to some of UNRWA activities and policies within the last few decades, accountable, restrained leadership and more determined action on the part of donor states, are required in order to prevent the Agency from further exemplifying this.

* * *


1 A. Baker (Ed.). Palestinian Manipulation of the International Community, Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, 2014.
2 See Council of the EU, Press Release (Gaza, 20 June, 2013), A337/13, at:
3 See Interview with F. Grandi, UN News Centre, (14 Mar., 2013), at:
4 Ibid.
5 Remarks by F. Grandi (Feb. 14, 2013), at: (italics added).
6 J. F. Barnes, Palestinian Summer Camp Offers the Games of War, The New York Times, (3 Aug., 2000).
7 J.G. Lindsay, ‘Fixing UNRWA’: Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees, The Washington  Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #91 (Jan. 2009), p. 30 fn. 30, 40.
8 R. Ahren, 20 Missiles Found in UN-Run School in Gaza, The Times of Israel (17 July, 2014), at:; UNRWA Strongly Condemns Placement of Rockets in School, Press Release (17 July, 2014), at:
9 ‘UNRWA in Figures (as of 1 Jan., 2013)’, at: In the West Bank there are some 4,500 UNRWA area staff members, while in Gaza there are 12,000.
10 L. Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, (Picador), (2010), p. 108. See also R. Bocco, UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees: A History within History, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), pp. 239-240.
11 Fixing UNRWA, pp. 31-32.
12 Fixing UNRWA, p. 41.
13 Fixing UNRWA, p. 32.
14 Available at: For UNRWA’s comment regarding the video, see ‘UNRWA Rejects Allegations of Incitement as Baseless: Statement by UNRWA Spokesperson C. Gunness’ (22 Aug., 2013), at:
15Al Nakba’ – ‘the Catastrophe’ in Arabic – generally refers to the 1948 War of Independence, while the ‘Nakba Day’ refers to the State of Israel’s day of independence.
16 See A. Groiss, Problematic Educational Role of UNRWA in the Middle East War, Israel Resource Review, (Oct. 18, 2013), at: The research examined 150 textbooks of various subjects, taught in grades 1-10, which had been issued by the PA between the years 2000-2005.
17 In this regard, UNRWA’s declared efforts to supplement the host governments’ curricula with additional materials and courses designed to ‘foster thinking about human rights, tolerance, and conflict resolution’ are quite unhelpful – see Fixing UNRWA, p. 6. See also I. Marcus, ‘UNRWA Workers ‘Adamantly Opposed’ to Holocaust Education in UNRWA Schools’, Palestinian Media Watch, (Apr. 27, 2011), at:
18 Approximately 57% ($381,055 million out of a total budget of $673,789 million in 2012) – see UNRWA Website, at:
19 Fixing UNRWA, p. 13; J. Al-Husseini, R. Bocco, The Status of the Palestinian Refugees in the Near East: The Right of Return and UNRWA in Perspective, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), p. 267; M. Kagan, Is There Really a Protection Gap? UNRWA’s Role vis-à-vis Palestinian Refugees, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), pp. 511-530.
20 Fixing UNRWA, p. 20.
21 Fixing UNRWA, p. 21, fns. 54-55. See also statement of former CG K. AbyZayd at the UN Security Council (2009) – the first time an UNRWA CG was invited to address the Council – discussing Israel’s ‘systematic destruction’ of civilian facilities in Gaza, as well as the ‘attackers’ failing to distinguish between military targets and civilians’ and ‘indiscriminate violence’– UN Security Council Closed Consultations Session, Statement by UNRWA Commissioner General, Karen Abu Zayd, (New York, 27 Jan., 2009).
22 Fixing UNRWA, p. 5, 21, 23.
23 Fixing UNRWA, p. 22 & fn. 60, p. 23. See, for example, speech by Abu Zayd delivered at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik (Mar. 8, 2007), where she compared the history of the 1948 war with the present Israeli conflict against Hamas – see K. Abu Zayd, ‘Crisis in Gaza and the West Bank’, available at:
24 See T. Sternthal, ‘Media, UNRWA Silent on Attacked Aid Convoy’, Camera, (Jan. 21, 2009), at:
25 See Proposed Report Language on UNRWA, Proposal to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Regarding Senate Report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2013, pp. 7-8 (on file with the author). See also Kagan, Is There Really a Protection Gap?, pp. 522-528.
26 ‘Lebanon: Seize Opportunity to End Discrimination against Palestinians’, Human Rights Watch, (June 18, 2010), at:
27 Statement by F. Grandi (7 Nov., 2013), at:
28 See J. Khoury, Egyptian Army Destroys 152 Smuggling Tunnels to Gaza Since July, Haaretz Online, (Sep. 16, 2013); Egypt Destroys Smuggling Tunnels on Gaza Border, Times of Israel, (Nov. 12, 2013); T.G. Lichtenwald, F.S. Perri, Terrorist Use of Smuggling Tunnels, International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, Vol. 2, (2013), pp. 210-226.
29 See Statement by F. Grandi (18 Nov., 2013), at:
30 Recall that the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry on the 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident (Sep. 2011) determined that ‘the naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law’ – see para. 82, p. 45, at:
31 Statement by F. Grandi (16 June, 2013), available at:
32 See ‘Palestine Refugees: An Unresolved Question at the Time of the Syria Crisis’, Lecture by F. Grandi, Pontifical Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (4 Oct., 2013),at:
33 See ‘Bernadotte: His Legacy to Palestinian Refugees’, Speech by C. Gunness (17 Sep., 2013), available at:
34 See UNRWA Area Staff Regulation 1.4 & 1.7, and International Staff Regulation 1.4 & 1.7.
35 The General Assembly; the Advisory Commission (AdCom); the UN Secretary General; the host countries; and the donor countries.
36 See Bocco, UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees, p. 232.
37 See Y. Zilbershats, N. Goren-Amitai, Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel, in R. Gavison (Ed. of Series), Position Papers, The Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought, (Feb. 2011), pp. 28-29. On the dispute regarding GA Res. 194(III) (Dec. 11, 1948), interpreted by Arab host states as a legitimization of the ‘right of return’ – see pp. 24-26, 49-57.
38 Report by K. Baehr, Executive Secretary of the American Christian Palestine Committee, to the Committee on Foreign Relations, Palestine Refugee Program, Hearings before the Subcommittee on the Near East and Africa of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session on the Palestine Refugee Program (May 1953), (Government Printing Office, 1953), p.103.
39 See generally Zilbershats, Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel, pp. 43-78.
40 Grandi, ‘Palestine Refugees: An Unresolved Question at the Time of the Syria Crisis’, (italics added).
41 Zilbershats, Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel, p. 37. By the end of 2012, the UNHCR documented 10.4 m. refugees worldwide (excluding Palestinian refugees – at:
42 The number of refugees who actually fled due to the 1948 war is still under some dispute – see Zilbershats, Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel, p. 22; Y. Arnon-Ohanna, ‘Line of Furrow and Fire: The Conflict for the Land of Israel, 1860-2010’, (2013), pp. 397-415; Al-Husseini, The Status of the Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, p. 266.
43 That is, nearly 60,000 – see ‘Palestinian Refugee Camps – A New Type of Settlement’, The Economist, (Oct. 12-18, 2013), p. 36, at:
44 Proposed Report Language on UNRWA, p. 3.
45 See
46 Return of Palestinian Refugees to the State of Israel, p. 39, 41.
47 See B. Goldstein, B. Muller, ‘Refugee or Not Refugee? No Longer a Question’, American Thinker, (Jul. 13, 2012), at: UNWRA is also the second largest employer in the PA after the Palestinian government. Three quarters of its budget are devoted to local staff salaries.
48 See ‘The Long Journey’: Digitizing the Palestine Refugee Experience’, at:; the archives were inscribed with UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ register, which includes collections of ‘outstanding cultural and historical significance’.
49 ‘The Long Journey’; Statement by F. Grandi, (18 Nov., 2013), at: (italics added).
50 See M.S. Bernstam, The Palestinian Proletariat, Commentary, (Dec. 2010), at:
51 See R. Bowker, Palestinian Refugees – Mythology, Identity, and the Search for Peace, (2003).
52 See ‘Palestinian Refugee Camps – A New Type of Settlement’.
53 See Bocco, UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees, pp. 249-250.
54 See Bartholomeusz, The Mandate of UNRWA at Sixty, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 28 (Nos. 2 & 3), (2010), p. 454. For UNRWA’s recent lobbying efforts, particularly in the USA, see ‘American Friends of UNRWA’ website, at:
55 Traditional UNRWA donors include the US, the EU and its Member States, Norway, Japan, Switzerland, and Australia (providing collectively over 90% of UNRWA’s budget). Brazil and Turkey have substantially increased their contributions due to extensive UNRWA lobbying. Constant efforts are invested to persuade members of the Arab League to meet their 7.8% target for collective contributions. The US has consistently been the largest donor, currently contributing more than 25% of UNRWA’s total revenue (and in total, since its inception in 1950, has contributed approximately $4.4 billion) – see Proposed Report Language on UNRWA.
56 See Staff Regulations of the United Nations, UN Doc. ST/SGB/2009/6, (27 May 2009), Regulation 1.2(f) (‘Basic Rights and Obligations of Staff’).
57 A. Zerbisias, Canada Redirects Funding for UN Relief Agency, Toronto Star, (Jan. 15, 2010), at:
58 S. J. Rosen, D. Pipes, Lessening UNRWA’s Damage, Jerusalem Post, (9 Jul., 2012), at:
59 See Text of H.Con.Res. 29, Expressing the sense of Congress that the UN should take immediate steps to improve the transparency and accountability of UNRWA to ensure that it is not providing funding, employment, or other support to terrorism, at:
60 The ‘Senator Kirk (R-IL) UNRWA Amendment’ was passed in spite of State Department opposition. The initiative opens the door for the Congress to scrutinize UNRWA’s policies – see Background Paper and Proposed Report Language on UNRWA submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee (on file with the author); J. Schanzer, Status Update: With the Stroke of a Pen, a New Bill in Congress Could Slash the Number of Palestinian Refugees and Open a World of Controversy, Foreign Policy, (May 21, 2012), at:
61 See
62 D. Rieff, ‘Afterward’, in C. Magone, M. Neuman, F. Weissman (eds.), Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Experience, (2012), at: