The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been a focal point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for several decades, and while it defines its position as providing essential support for Palestinians across the Middle East, many questions have been raised about its place in perpetuating the conflict and incitement to violence.

Amid the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, further questions have been raised about the agency’s ties with Hamas, and what function, if any, it would fulfill in a post-war Gaza. On January 26, the U.S. announced it would temporarily pause funding to UNRWA after Israel revealed that at least a dozen employees were allegedly involved in the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel. 

Here’s what to know about UNRWA, why it's controversial, and its role in the Israel-Hamas war

What were UNRWA’s ties to the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel?

According to Israeli intelligence reports, at least 12 employees of UNRWA were part of the unprecedented Hamas terror assault on Israel on October 7, which left 1,200 people dead and over 240 taken hostage on the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. 

Israel revealed that six UNRWA workers were part of the wave of terrorists who breached the Gaza-Israel border and massacred civilians inside of Israel. Additionally, two helped to kidnap Israelis, two others were tracked to sites where hundreds of Israeli civilians were shot and killed. Others coordinated logistics for the assault, including procuring weapons. 

Among the 12 UNRWA employees who were linked to the terror attacks, seven were primary or secondary school teachers, including two math teachers, two Arabic language teachers, and one primary school teacher. 

Israeli intelligence seen by The Wall Street Journal identified that a UNRWA Arabic teacher was also a Hamas commander and took part in the terrorist attack on Kibbutz Be’eri, where 97 innocent people were slaughtered in their homes in the early morning of October 7, and about 26 people were taken hostage.

Also, according to The Wall Street Journal report, Israeli intelligence estimates shared with the U.S. conclude that around 1,200 of UNRWA’s estimated 12,000 employees in Gaza have links to the Iranian-backed Gaza terror groups Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 

What has been the international reaction to UNRWA-October 7 links? 

Israeli intelligence has briefed the U.S. on the findings, which led to the U.S. announcement on January 26 that it would temporarily suspend funding to the UN Agency. 

“The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them,” spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

“There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of October 7,” he added.

Several other countries have also joined the U.S. in suspending payments to UNRWA, including the UK, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and Japan. 

In his first direct comments on the issue, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the world body would hold to account “any UN employee involved in acts of terror” and called them “abhorrent alleged acts,” but also implored governments to continue to support the UN refugee agency for Palestinians. 

"The tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met."

Of the 12 employees implicated, nine have been fired, one was confirmed dead, and the identities of two others were being clarified. 

What do we know about the Hamas tunnel found under UNRWA's Gaza headquarters? 

On February 10, the IDF announced it discovered a tunnel shaft near a school in Gaza run by the UNRWA that connected underground to UNRWA’s central headquarters in the Gaza Strip.

The tunnel in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood is approximately 700 meters long and 18 meters deep.

The IDF and Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said that the underground tunnel served as “a significant asset of Hamas’s military intelligence and passed under the building that serves as UNRWA’s main headquarters in the Gaza Strip.”

The subterranean data center included an electrical room, industrial battery power banks, and living quarters for Hamas terrorists operating the servers.

Additionally, the IDF said electrical cables led directly from the UNRWA building to the tunnel below, providing power to the Hamas infrastructure. 

In a statement posted on X, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini denied knowledge of the Hamas data center under his agency’s headquarters. 

Lazzarini says UNRWA “did not know what is under its headquarters in Gaza” and that the reports “merit an independent inquiry that is currently not possible to undertake given Gaza is an active war zone.”

Lazzarini said that UNRWA staff left the Gaza headquarters on October 12, five days after the Hamas attack on October 7, and that the agency has not used the compound since. 

UNRWA, he said, “is a human development and humanitarian organization that does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises.”

"In the past, whenever (a) suspicious cavity was found close to or under UNRWA premises, protest letters were promptly filed to parties to the conflict, including both the de facto authorities in Gaza (Hamas) and the Israeli authorities."

Reacting to the statement from Lazzarini, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, called for the UNRWA head to step down. 

“The exposure of UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters’ deep involvement with Hamas, including its use for terror activities and as an access point to terror tunnels, requires immediate action,” says Katz.

Additionally, Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said that UNRWA was fully aware of the tunnel.

“They knew, and they didn’t find out from the media. Israeli authorities invited [UNRWA] leadership to tour the Hamas Server Farm under UNRWA HQ in Gaza City. Lazzarini ignored the invitation,” Levy said. 

What is UNRWA and why was it started?

UNRWA was established in 1949, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, also known as Israel’s War of Independence. The agency was created in response to the displacement of Palestinians resulting from the conflict, notably after the rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan by Arab states and the subsequent war waged by Palestinian irregular forces against Israel as well as five Arab countries following Israel’s independence in May 1948. UNRWA’s goal is to provide Palestinians with humanitarian assistance and quasi-state services. 

UNRWA is also unique from other international refugee agencies in two ways.

First, UNRWA is separate from the United Nations’ main agency that handles refugees and displaced persons, known as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), created in 1950-51. UNHCR handles all other refugees, while UNRWA is just solely dedicated to the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. 

Secondly, UNRWA is unique in that its policy allows the inheritance of refugee status across generations. This practice has expanded the original count of an estimated 750,000 Palestinian refugees to over 5 million today, significantly amplifying the refugee issue in the region. The status of automatic inheritance of the refugee classification continues and worsens the Palestinian problem - and remains one of the main points of criticism against UNRWA.

Where does UNRWA get its funding?

UNRWA's funding primarily comes from voluntary contributions of UN member states. In 2022, significant donors included the United States, Germany, the European Union, and Sweden, together contributing over 60% of UNRWA's budget of $1.6 billion. 

In 2023, the U.S. provided $422 million to UNRWA. 

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump suspended U.S. funding to the agency, accusing it of bias and incitement against Israel. President Biden restored the funding in 2021. 

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood, Alternate Representative of the U.S. for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations, spoke about U.S. support for UNRWA at the UN Security Council in December 2023. 

“…UNRWA must be supported – and the United States has provided more than $422 million to its 2023 appeals to that end. …ultimately, we must all work towards a two-state solution, which serves as the only foundation for a truly sustainable peace.” 

Why is UNRWA so controversial?

UNRWA is controversial because, unlike all other refugee situations worldwide, the Palestinians get their own refugee agency. 

There are currently 35.3 million registered refugees worldwide, of whom 29.4 million are under the mandate of UNHCR. The remaining 5.9 million people are under UNRWA’s mandate. The existence of a separate agency to deal with Palestinian refugees, while all other refugees are under UNHCR’s mandate, is why UNRWA is controversial.

Another long-held controversy regarding UNRWA has been the accusation that it has played a role in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, granting refugee status to the descendants of Palestinian refugees has ensured that the number of refugees will continue to grow each successive generation.

At the same time, many also believe that Arab nations have used UNRWA to perpetuate the conflict against Israel. Aside from Jordan, most Palestinian refugees have not been granted citizenship in their host countries, despite residing there for nearly 75 years. 

In 1952, Lt. Gen. Alexander Galloway, director of UNRWA in Jordan, stated, “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.” The Palestinians have never let go of this agenda.

In addition, Palestinians living in UNRWA refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, who have never crossed an international border in previous wars, are still considered by the UN as refugees. In every other case, a person must be forced to leave one country and cross an international border to be deemed a refugee by the UN.

UNRWA's controversy also partially stems from its educational role. A recent report by the watchdog group IMPACT-se highlighted that UNRWA's educational materials,  based on the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum, contain antisemitic content and celebrate violence and martyrdom-jihadist culture. Additionally, there have been reports of UNRWA staff endorsing violence and terrorism, and UNRWA-educated individuals becoming affiliated with Hamas.

UNRWA has a significant position in educating almost 545,000 Palestinian children across the Middle East.

The IMPACT-se report examined educational materials used in UNRWA schools, particularly in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, where the PA curriculum is adopted.

The PA curriculum, which has been under scrutiny since its 2016 revision, is found to contain – like it did before its revision – antisemitic content and the promotion of violence, jihad, and ‘martyrdom’ culture, while omitting teachings of peace and coexistence. UNRWA, while not producing its own curriculum, supplements the host country’s curriculum with additional materials. Despite pledges to counter-act calls for violence by UNRWA, the report found a disturbing failure to do so. 

The report also revealed alarming findings regarding UNRWA staff’s public endorsements of violence and terrorism. Notably, it discusses how some UNRWA staff publicly praised and supported deadly assaults on Israeli civilians. 

Detailed reports from the watchdog group UN Watch have exposed over 150 instances since 2015 in which UNRWA staff have been implicated in supporting terrorism and antisemitism.

More than 80 UNRWA teachers and staff across more than 30 schools have been caught distributing hateful content in their textbooks. 

According to UN Watch: “Teachers and schools at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which runs education and social services for Palestinians, regularly call to murder Jews, and create teaching materials that glorify terrorism, encourage martyrdom, demonize Israelis and incite antisemitism.” 

Matthias Schmale, a former Gaza-based director of UNRWA, was transferred from his posting in Gaza after comments he made to the Israeli press following the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, where he appeared to praise Israel's "huge sophistication" in carrying out "precision" strikes. He faced protests from his Palestinian employees outside of UNRWA's headquarters in Gaza, and Hamas said that it could no longer guarantee his safety. 

What has UNRWA been doing since the Israel-Hamas war began?

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, UNRWA has focused on distributing food and other aid to Palestinians in Gaza. The agency has also coordinated with the IDF to facilitate aid delivery through border crossings.

Throughout the conflict, there have been examples of Hamas terrorists using UNRWA facilities and equipment for their activities. For example, in December, in Gaza, following information regarding Hamas terrorists hiding inside schools, the IDF raided Al Rafaa and Zavaha schools in Tuffah in the northern Gaza Strip. During the encounter with the terrorists and their elimination, the soldiers located dozens of explosive devices in UNRWA bags, Kalashnikovs, and 15 explosive belts. In one of Hamas’ attempts to attack Israeli soldiers, a terrorist fired an anti-tank missile at the IDF position.

Israeli journalist Almog Boker, a reporter with Israel’s Channel 13, shared the testimony of an Israeli taken on October 7 who was held hostage and starved by a UNRWA teacher. UNRWA has called on the reporter to provide more information or retract the claim. 

UN Watch also released a report in January 2024 detailing a Telegram group of 3,000 UNRWA teachers with posts celebrating the Hamas massacre on October 7. Within minutes of the attack, members of the group praised the perpetrators as "heroes," lauded the education received by the terrorists, shared images of dead or captured Israelis, and called for the execution of hostages.

UNRWA announced on January 26 that it had opened a probe into the alleged involvement of several employees in the October 7 attack.

“The Israeli authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7,” said Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-General.

What is AJC saying about UNRWA? 

AJC is keenly aware that some two million Palestinian civilians in Gaza depend on aid from UNRWA. Their condition might deteriorate further due to the allegations against UNRWA employees, which led the U.S. and several other major donor countries to suspend their financial aid to the agency. Despite the serious issues with UNRWA that must be investigated, continued delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza is essential, and next steps on UNRWA must be conducted in a manner that does not harm Palestinian civilians in need of humanitarian assistance.

Click here to read the full AJC policy position on UNRWA.