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What is the UNRWA, and Why Is Israel Trying to Have it Closed Down?

By Nasim Ahmed

PIC, February 5, 2024

A UNRWA school in Dair El-Bala'h became a refuge for displaced Palestinians whose houses
were destroyed by Israeli genocidal air strikes on Gaza Strip, January 2024

What is UNRWA, and why is Israel trying to have it closed down?

At least 10 Western governments, including the US, UK and Germany, suspended their donations to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) last week after twelve of its staff were accused by Israel of involvement in the 7 October Hamas incursion. The agency is a lifeline for 5.6 million registered Palestinian refugees, so the decision to cut funds was a shock, especially as Gaza’s 2.2 million Palestinians are in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Responding to the shocking move by Israel’s allies, UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said on Saturday: “It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an Agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region.”

UNRWA has said that the funding suspension threatens the “lifesaving” humanitarian assistance it is providing in dire circumstances in Gaza. The agency is the largest UN body in Gaza, with some 13,000 employees in the sector – nearly all of them Palestinians – apart from its operations in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the occupied West Bank. It employs around 30,000 people altogether.

Here is what you need to know about UNRWA and why it has been a target for Israel since its creation.

Historical background

UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly in order to assist and protect registered Palestinian refugees displaced in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of their land. Over 75,000 Palestinians, more than half the indigenous population, were forced to flee during the Nakba.

Created as a temporary agency until a just and durable solution for Palestine refugees was achieved, the UNRWA mandate was set to expire a year after its founding. Almost 76 years later, and with Israel refusing to allow Palestinian refugees to exercise their legitimate right to return to their homes and land, the agency continues to provide essential services in education, healthcare and humanitarian aid. It depends almost entirely on voluntary donations from UN member states.

The operational definition of Palestine refugees is people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and their descendants, and who lost both their homes and means of livelihood during the Nakba.

Israel wants to erase the Palestinian refugee issue

UNRWA’s very existence is a constant reminder of Israel’s historical crimes against the Palestinians.

What is UNRWA, and why is Israel trying to have it closed down? (



05 February 2024

The Secretary-General, in consultation with UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, has appointed an independent Review Group to assess whether the Agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made.

The review will be led by Catherine Colonna, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of France, who will work with three research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The Review Group will begin its work on 14 February 2024 and is expected to submit an interim report to the Secretary-General late March 2024, with a final report expected to be completed by late April 2024. The final report will be made public.

This review is in response to a request made by UNRWA Commissioner-General Lazzarini earlier this year.

The Review Group’s terms of reference are:

To identify the mechanisms and procedures that the Agency currently has in place to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations or information indicating that the principle may have been breached;

To ascertain how those mechanisms and procedures have, or have not, been implemented in practice and whether every practicable effort has been made to apply them to their full potential, taking into account the particular operational, political and security environment in which the Agency works;

To assess the adequacy of those mechanisms and procedures and whether they are fit for purpose, including in relation to the management of risks and taking into account the particular operational, political and security context in which the Agency works;

To make recommendations for the improvement and strengthening, if necessary, of the mechanisms and procedures that are currently in place or for the creation of new and alternative mechanisms and procedures that would be better fit for purpose, taking into account the particular operational, political and security context in which the Agency works;

The Secretary-General notes that these accusations come at a time when UNRWA, the largest UN organization in the region, is working under extremely challenging conditions to deliver life-saving assistance to the 2 million people in the Gaza Strip who depend on it for their survival amidst one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world. 

This independent external review will take place in parallel with an investigation currently underway by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) into allegations of the involvement of 12 UNRWA personnel in the 7 October attacks. The cooperation of the Israeli authorities, who made these allegations, will be critical to the success of the investigation.  

Find statement on the United Nations website here.

Statement by the Secretary-General – on UNRWA | UNRWA


UNRWA Situation Report #73 on the situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem | UNRWA





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