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What is UNRWA, the aid provider in Gaza that Israel accuses of militant links?

UN aid agency is relied upon by 2 million Palestinians – about 87% of the population in Gaza
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Israel’s allegations that 12 employees of a United Nations agency were involved in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack have led several Western countries to cut off funding and reignited debate over Gaza’s biggest humanitarian aid provider.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, employs thousands of staffers and provides vital aid and services to millions of people across the Middle East. In Gaza, it has been the main supplier of food, water and shelter to civilians during the Israel-Hamas war.

Israel has long railed against the agency, accusing it of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas and of perpetuating the 75-year-old Palestinian refugee crisis. The Israeli government has accused Hamas and other militant groups of siphoning off aid and using U.N. facilities for military purposes.

UNRWA denies those allegations and says it took swift action against the employees accused of taking part in the attack. The United States and eight other Western nations that together provided more than half of UNRWA’s budget in 2022 nevertheless suspended their funding to the agency.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, or 87% of the population, rely on UNRWA services that would be scaled back as soon as February if the money is not restored.


The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East was established to provide aid to the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding the country’s creation.

The Palestinians say the refugees and their descendants, who now number nearly 6 million across the Middle East, have the right to return to their homes.

Israel has refused, because if the right of return were to be fully implemented it would result in a Palestinian majority inside its borders. The fate of the refugees and their descendants was among the thorniest issues in the peace process, which ground to a halt in 2009.

UNRWA operates schools, health clinics, infrastructure projects and aid programs in refugee camps that now resemble dense urban neighborhoods in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. It has 13,000 employees in Gaza alone, the vast majority of them Palestinians.

In Gaza, where some 85% of territory’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes, over 1 million are sheltering in UNRWA schools and other facilities.


Israel accuses UNRWA of turning a blind eye as Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, siphons off aid intended for civilians and fights from in and around U.N. facilities, several of which have been struck during the war. It also has exposed Hamas tunnels running next to or under UNRWA facilities and accuses the agency of teaching hatred of Israel in its schools.

UNRWA denies those allegations. It says it has no links to Hamas or to any other militant groups, and that it thoroughly investigates any allegations of wrongdoing and holds staff accountable. It says it shares lists of all of its staff with Israel and other host countries.

The 12 employees are said to have participated in the surprise Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas fighters from Gaza overran Israel’s extensive border defenses. Other militants joined in the subsequent rampage through nearby communities, which left 1,200 people dead, mostly civilians. Around 250 others, including children, were captured and dragged into Gaza.

U.N. chief Guterres said nine of the accused UNRWA employees were immediately terminated, one was confirmed dead and the other two still need to be identified. He said all would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

Neither the details of the allegations nor the evidence supporting them has been made public.

UNRWA has condemned the Oct. 7 attack and called for all the hostages to be freed. Earlier this month, before the latest allegations, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini announced an external review of the agency to determine which accusations are “true or untrue” and “what is politically motivated.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the agency should be shut down. But his government has continued to allow UNRWA to operate in the West Bank and Gaza, where it provides basic services that might otherwise be the responsibility of Israel as the occupying power. No other entity would be able to quickly fill the void if UNRWA ceased operations.


The United States, which was the first country to suspend funding, is the biggest donor to UNRWA, providing it with $340 million in 2022. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland have also suspended aid.

The nine countries together provided nearly 60% of UNRWA’s budget in 2022. It was not immediately clear when or how the suspension of aid would affect the agency’s day-to-day operations. Norway and Ireland said they would continue funding UNRWA, while other donors have not yet made a decision.

The war has plunged Gaza into a severe humanitarian crisis. One in four Palestinians in the territory faces starvation, according to U.N. officials, who say aid operations are hampered by the fighting and Israeli restrictions.

“Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing,” Lazzarini posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

He expressed shock that countries would suspend aid “based on alleged behavior of a few individuals and as the war continues, needs are deepening & famine looms.”

The war has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, most women and children, and wounded more than 64,400 others, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. It does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its toll but says most of those killed were women and children.

The death toll includes more than 150 UNWRA employees, the most aid workers the U.N. has lost in a single conflict.

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Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press