Australia/Israel Review

Eight things to know about UNRWA

Jan 25, 2024 | Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Among UNRWA’s other long-standing problems, there are reports of its aid being seized by Hamas during the current war (Image: Anas Mohammed/ Shutterstock)
Among UNRWA’s other long-standing problems, there are reports of its aid being seized by Hamas during the current war (Image: Anas Mohammed/ Shutterstock)

[On January 16, while visiting the Middle East, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced that Australia would be contributing A$21.5 million to address “urgent and ongoing humanitarian needs resulting from the Hamas-Israel conflict”. A$6 million of that money, she added, would go to “the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to provide urgent lifesaving assistance including food, shelter and emergency health care.” This would be on top of the A$20 million Australian already contributes annually to UNRWA. UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini also reportedly told Wong that the agency was going to “commission an independent review, to look at all the allegations regarding UNRWA and its activities in Gaza.” 

The following factsheet seeks to explain why UNRWA is a controversial outlet for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians – Ed.]


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in 1949 to serve Palestinian refugees displaced during Israel’s War of Independence. UNRWA continues to operate in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, nearly 75 years later. 

1. UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem

The United Nations (UN) treats Palestinian refugees differently than refugees from every other conflict or circumstance. Specifically, UNRWA automatically registers the descendants of Palestinian refugees in perpetuity, which has led to explosive growth in its official number of clients. From an original number of around 700,000 refugees, there are now 5.9 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA, even though the vast majority did not flee the 1948 conflict. In 2021, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that fewer than 5% of UNRWA-registered “refugees” meet the criteria for the designation that the UN applies to refugees from other conflicts. By growing the refugee population and promoting Palestinian claims to Israeli land, UNRWA perpetuates and exacerbates the conflict.

2. UNRWA is a bloated agency with no authority to meaningfully solve the refugee issue

With the exception of Palestinian refugees, all other refugees in the world fall under the responsibility of the United Nations Refugee Agency (also known as UNHCR), which has a mandate to assist refugees in “repatriation and resettlement” and “assimilation with new national communities.” The UN Refugee Agency has a staff of 18,000 to serve more than 100 million people. By contrast, UNRWA employs 30,000 staff to service 5.9 million Palestinians. UNRWA admits that it “does not have a mandate to resettle Palestine refugees and has no authority to seek lasting durable solutions for refugees.”

3. Neighbouring governments refused to resettle Arab refugees after Israel’s War of Independence

Both Jews and Arabs fled their homes during and after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Following the war, Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab states who faced persecution and expulsion. However, due to the challenges of resettlement and the benefits of wielding the refugees as a future weapon against Israel, these same Arab states did not resettle a similar number of displaced Arabs. In 1949, the United Nations established UNRWA to serve Palestinian refugees. Although most of UNRWA’s original beneficiaries are no longer alive, the agency continues to operate in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

4. UNRWA does not recognise Hamas as a terrorist organisation

In 1997, the United States designated Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, freezing its US-based assets, barring members from entering the country, and banning the provision of “material support or resources.” Other countries and international entities that have designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation include Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Israel, the Organization of American States, Paraguay, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. However, UNRWA follows the guidelines of the United Nations Security Council Consolidated List of terrorist groups and individuals, which does not include Hamas. As such, the agency has a history of hiring Hamas affiliates. 

5. By delivering basic services, UNRWA frees up money for Hamas to spend on terrorism

Despite the poverty experienced by Gaza residents, Hamas spends over half of its budget on military needs and diverts humanitarian resources to its terrorist purposes and the pockets of its senior leadership. By picking up the civilian tab, UNRWA frees up Hamas resources for terror operations. A Hamas official admitted as such on October 30, explaining that Hamas built hundreds of kilometres of tunnels to protect its fighters, while “it is the responsibility of the United Nations to protect [civilians].” 

6. UNRWA schools radicalise Palestinian children

The curriculum taught in UNRWA schools denies Israel’s legitimacy, incites antisemitism, and encourages violence and jihad. In a study published after the massacre of October 7, IMPACT-se – a research and policy organisation that monitors education around the world – documented statements from more than a dozen UNRWA employees who publicly praised the atrocities. IMPACT-se also identified more than 100 UNRWA employees who promoted hatred and violence on social media prior to the attack.

A study released by UN Watch on Jan. 10 revealed a Telegram group of 3,000 UNRWA teachers in Gaza was replete with posts celebrating the Hamas massacre of October 7 minutes after it began, praising the murderers and rapists as “heroes”, glorifying the “education” the terrorists received, and gleefully sharing photos of dead or captured Israelis. There were reportedly thousands of such posts. 

7. Hamas manipulates UNRWA’s Gaza operations

Hamas has built tunnels underneath UNRWA schools in Gaza for years, using students as human shields. On Nov. 8, Israeli forces destroyed a Hamas terror tunnel adjacent to an UNRWA-administered school in the Gaza Strip. Further, the group stores rockets inside UNRWA schools and uses school grounds as launchpads for attacks. UNRWA leadership also clamps down on employees whose statements reflect well on Israel or poorly on Hamas. For example, UNRWA recalled its Gaza chief in 2021 after he publicly acknowledged that Israel carried out “precise” and “sophisticated” strikes in order to avoid civilian casualties. Similarly, just weeks after the October 7 massacre, UNRWA reported Hamas officials were removing fuel and medical equipment from an UNRWA facility in Gaza City. Yet the agency quickly deleted the information, likely under pressure from Hamas authorities.

8. UNRWA management has a history of scandal

Reports surfaced in 2019 of “credible and corroborated” corruption allegations against senior UNRWA personnel. In an internal review that leaked to the press, UNRWA detailed “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination, and other abuses of authority” among its top brass. UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl resigned in the aftermath of an internal investigation. The scandal prompted Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands to suspend their funding. UNRWA has no board of directors to ensure accountability and prevent corruption within the agency. 

© Foundation for Defense of Democracies (, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 


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