The UNGA meets to discuss the situation in Palestine
MCC Photo/Victoria Wiebe

The United Nations General Assembly holds a discussion on Palestine and Israel.

Recently, headlines and articles have been circulating throughout Western media regarding a United Nations (UN) program that has previously not garnered much media attention—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. These headlines, first appearing in late August and early September, gave many North Americans an initial glimpse into what UNRWA is and does. But what exactly is the significance of UNRWA’s work, and of the Trump administration’s recent announcement that the United States would no longer fund it?[i] Here is a quick guide to UNRWA for beginners.


What is UNRWA?

UNRWA is a relief and humanitarian development agency that has functioned under the UN General Assembly since 1949. UNRWA was created as a response to Palestinian refugees who had either fled or been expelled from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Initially established by the then 59 members of the General Assembly, UNRWA’s mandate in 1949 was to “carry out direct relief and works programs in collaboration with local governments” and to “consult with the Near Eastern governments concerning measures to be taken preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available.”[ii] UNRWA has adapted slightly over the years and as of 1967 has stated a mandate of providing relief, human development and protection to Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1967 conflict, specifically in its field of operation—Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. This mandate remains under renewal until June 30, 2020.  

In 1967, tensions throughout the Middle East boiled over between Arabs and Israelis. This led to six days of war and an eventual Israeli victory. This was the beginning of Israel’s occupation in the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights of Syria.[iii] The conflict created hundreds of thousands of refugees and swallowed more than a million Palestinians into Israel’s rule. 

UNRWA’s response to the conflict has traditionally focused on education, health services, small loans, and emergency response for Palestinian refugees, similar to many other agencies and organizations in the area. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) provides support to The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), which works in Palestine and Lebanon with refugees as well. Although UNRWA and PARD are different entities, their mandates and outcomes are undeniably linked. When UNRWA loses funding, more refugees turn to smaller organizations, such as MCC partner programs and supported programs like PARD. These smaller organizations are seeing higher rates of refugees’ needs not being met by UNRWA.


Who is considered a Palestinian refugee, and why does this matter?

The official definition of a Palestinian refugee under the UN covers “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Even though that time period was over 70 years ago, this definition is still significant. The Palestine and Israel conflict has not ended, and the UN still recognizes about 5 million people as Palestinian refugees. When UNRWA was founded it was only responding to the needs of 750,000 refugees, but their mandate now covers multiple generations. In 1982, UNRWA released an updated version of their Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions[iv] extending the eligibility of registration as a refugee to the descendants of Palestinian males, including legally adopted children.    


How is UNRWA funded, and how has its funding changed?

UNRWA funding has traditionally been sourced through the voluntary contributions of UN member states. The U.S. was formerly the biggest contributor to UNRWA. In 2016, the U.S. donated USD 368 million, about a third of the 2016 annual Project Budget.[v] In August 2018, however, U. S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley confirmed that the U.S. State Department would be ending all contributions to UNRWA, reversing a policy held constant by U.S. administrations for the past 70 years.

Because UNRWA runs on member state donations, when their biggest funder decided to pull completely out, there was a scramble within the UN community[vi] to find funds from other sources. The sudden and severe drop in support threatened to close schools, cut off livelihoods and cause further gaps in services provided to Palestinian refugees. Other member states stepped forward to donate funds to keep the program running, however there are still many unknowns and concerns. Member states have offered several ideas to keep the agency active. Some, such as Australia, have suggested that member states pledge multi-year donations in advance to create a more sustainable funding buffer. Others, such as Japan, have called for increased involvement from the private sector.  

The UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee (the Special Political and Decolonization Committee) leads discussions about UNRWA at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Fourth Committee’s discussions address UNRWA’s funding, mandate and role in the region.

Current UNRWA strategic outcomes are:

  • The protection and promotion of refugees’ rights under international law;
  • The protection of refugees’ health and the reduction of disease;
  • The ability of school-aged children to complete quality, equitable and inclusive basic education;
  • The strengthening of refugee’s capabilities for increased livelihoods and opportunities;
  • The ability of refugees to meet their basic human needs of food, shelter and environmental health.[vii]


What does “right to return” mean within the UNRWA context?

The “right to return” refers to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, adopted in 1948. The resolution states that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”[viii] Unfortunately, this is not a reality for most Palestinians. Many desire to return to their homeland, but that land has been annexed by Israel, who does not recognize Resolution 194. UNRWA was founded shortly after the adoption of Resolution 194, and since its definition of refugees includes descendants of those who were displaced in the original conflict, the discussion over right to return is still extremely relevant to UNRWA’s function. The Right to Return should not be confused with Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, which gives Jewish people the right to live in Israel and attain Israeli citizenship.[ix]

Since UNRWA is a humanitarian agency and not a political entity, it cannot affect any political processes or laws. Despite this clear mandate, it can be very difficult in international relations to separate humanitarian assistance from the political intentions of state actors. This has made discussions on UNRWA contentious in the General Assembly, even though UNRWA has the public support of most member states.

Representatives from Israel have claimed that humanitarian organizations like UNRWA posit the right to return within Resolution 194 as the only solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis, and that assisting Palestinian refugees deters them from seeking citizenship in other countries under the promise of eventual return.[x] Israel, of course, has no intention of readmitting Palestinian refugees.

About one third of Palestinian refugees live in refugee camps, meaning that they do not own the land that they live on, they have merely been granted the right to use it temporarily. They are not guaranteed citizenship from the countries hosting the camps. Many remain stateless within other countries’ borders. 


Israeli Occupied Territory: Just a Problem for Palestine?

Alongside the Palestinian pieces of territory captured at the end of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel took the Golan Heights of Syria, a hilly area in southwest Syria that borders Jordan. Israel annexed Golan Heights in 1981, making this 444 square mile area another source of recent conflict between Israel and its neighboring states.

There are more than 45 United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions regarding Israel, meaning that that Israel is mentioned in this type of resolution more than any other member state. Discussions involving Palestine and Israel also include member states who have been involved in drafting and implementing these resolutions, and in funding programs like UNRWA. The United Nations is clearly focused on and invested in Palestine and Israel. This is small proof that other countries feel deeply about the Palestine question, especially as the conflict crosses borders.


This booklet explores further information about Palestine and Israel, and provides a summary of MCC’s work in the area.


Victoria Wiebe and Abby Hershberger are Program Assistants at Mennonite Central Committee’s United Nations Office.