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In Between Politics and Humanitarian Agendas: UNRWA and Palestinian Statehood



The United Nations Work and Relief Agency (UNRWA) is the oldest, most-established and perhaps the most successful international humanitarian operation in the world. It was set up as a temporary agency in 1949 to assist displaced Palestinians after the Arab-Israeli hostilities of 1948. Its original mandate was to carry out relief and work programs in cooperation with local governments. Over the years, the UN General Assembly repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate while awaiting resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees. As the situation continued to remain unresolved, UNRWA’s services were extended to include relief, human development and protection of Palestine refugees. Although the agency’s mandate was intended to be temporary, its existence has nonetheless been perpetuated because of the intractability of the Palestine problem. Today, UNRWA’s services reach out to over five million Palestinian refugees, living primarily in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.

This paper is concerned with the politics of humanitarianism, analyzing how geo-political relations influence the situation at the macro level and how that relates to the principles by which UNRWA is meant be guided.  More specifically, I will analyze UNRWA’s policies and practices through both the humanitarian and political lenses, and the resulting influence on the lives of Palestinian refugees. I will study the trends within the organization, how the mission of the organization is guided by a new brand of humanitarian imperative, and comment on the future of the organization itself. My primary mode of research is the existing body of research referenced throughout this paper as well as an interview conducted with Mr. Lex Takkenberg, current Chief of Ethics Office and previous Deputy Director General at UNRWA.[1]My aim is to investigate the policies and schemas of intervention, their relation to the political agenda, effect on the socioeconomic status of the refugee households and implications on the Palestinian aspirations of statehood.


In the aftermath of 1948 Palestine War (al-Nakba), more than 700,000 Palestinian civilians were displaced from their homeland to become refugees either in cities and towns within what remained of Palestine or in countries outside Palestine[2]. Immediately after the 1948 war,emergency aid was channeled to Palestinians via international agencies and international non-governmental organizations. On 8 December 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established by the UN under General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) to provide assistance, protection and advocacy for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA defined a Palestinian refugee as, “person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and who lost both home and livelihood as a result of the conflict and took refuge in one of the areas which today comprise Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” This definition however has evolved over the years, as will be discussed later.


Currently, the total number of refugees who benefit from UNRWA’s services is over five million. UNRWA has been the main provider of basic humanitarian relief and human development services to the Palestinian refugees for more than 60 years. Over the years, the agency has provided services traditionally associated with government ministries in the fields of education, health, and social services, establishing itself almost as a quasi-state institution.[3] In spite of the Palestinian population being one of the highest per capita receivers of aid on a regular basis, the socioeconomic indicators for Palestinian households have not shown much improvement. Among some refugee groups, poverty is rampant, while the livelihoods of others have been taken hostage by the onslaught of war in Arab states. Moreover, the Palestinians remain a state-less population and 65 years latter are arguably no closer to a viable, sustainable solution.

These factors bring into question not only the impact of UNRWA’s work, but its approach to humanitarianism and even its reason for existence. On one hand, the severely under-funded organization has been questioned for the shortcomings of its rigor in providing humanitarian assistance, while on the other, its programs have been regarded as contradictory to the right of return of Palestinians. Only through an analysis of the evolution of UNRWA, its position in the geopolitical arena and scrutiny of its theory and methodology of change, can one attempt to answer these questions.


The Evolution of UNRWA

UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly as a temporary humanitarian agency in response to the urgent problem of the Palestinian refugees. It is widely believed that UNRWA may have been created because of a misperception that the United Nations was responsible for the flight of the refugees from Palestine.[4] Hence, the General Assembly accepted the Palestinians refugees under its wards, until the umbrella of its protective agencies was no longer needed.Because UNRWA was created as an autonomous UN agency, directly accountable to the General Assembly and not incorporated as an international treaty, its accountability system has been flawed from the very beginning. Unlike UNICEF or UNHCR, the two welfare agencies which focus on formulating and coordinating programs, UNRWA executes its programs and has been the second largest employer in its field of operation.[5]The agency’s structure allows it broad freedom of action, making it capable of engaging in commercial transactions and establishing legally defined relations with governments, other international organizations, and employees.


In 1949, UNRWA served between 330,000 and 500,000 refugees. Today, this number has grown to over five million[6]. While initially UNRWA had a legal reason for existence, after the numerous efforts to settle the Israeli-Arab conflict, the UN replaced its initial legalistic approach with a humanitarian one. The 1967 conflict and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since then created new realities – there was an unexpected increase in the number of refugees and human rights became the new focus of attention.[7] UNRWA’s public works plan (to create permanent employment and build essential infrastructures in the camps) failed shortly due to resistance from both refugees and host country governments. Following this, there was a shift in focus to education, with health care and relief as second and third priorities. The intifada of 1987-1993 provided the next occasion for UNRWA to be called upon to implement “passive” protection activities in relation to the Palestine refugees.  The UN Secretary General submitted a report to the Security Council in which was mentioned four principal means by which the protection of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), including the refugees, could be secured: physical protection, legal protection, protection by means of general assistance and protection by publicity. UNRWA’s role was seemed primarily to provide general assistance while creating awareness of the situation. The Madrid and Oslo peace frameworks provided new hope for a meaningful solution, and redefined the role that UNRWA could play in it. The UN General Assembly noted that UNRWA should work within the framework of strengthened cooperation with host countries and the Palestinian Authority to make a pivotal contribution towards economic and social stability of the occupied territories. This endorsed UNRWA’s Peace Implementation Program designed to improve infrastructure and services for the refugees and in the camps in the OPT.


UNRWA remains unique in the UN system as an operational body whose primary relationship is with the General Assembly. It was intended as a temporary organization that would provide emergency relief to the Palestine refugees alongside other UN mechanisms that were designed to address the political issues in their entirety. The failure of the UN mechanisms designed to handle political issues of the Palestine problem has forced UNRWA to metamorphose into an all-purpose vehicle. The evolving contours of its mandate have reflected this. However, at its core, UNRWA’s mandate continues to be the provision of essential humanitarian services and the empowerment of the refugees through development of their human capital until there is a just solution to the refugee problem[8].

The Humanitarian Imperative and New Humanitarianism

Humanitarian action is defined as “International attempts to help victims through the provision of relief and the protection of their human rights”.[9] There is however an ethical framework that directs humanitarian work through the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence as defined bellow.[10]

Humanity Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.
Neutrality Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.
Impartiality Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.
Independence Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.

Table 1: UNOCHA Humanitarian Principles



Humanitarian response has always been molded by politics, although this relationship is constantly evolving and depends on the geopolitical context. As a UN mandated humanitarian organization, UNRWA is bound by these UNOCHA humanitarian principles. While in theory, the agency strives towards these principles, geopolitics, funding, conflict and internal disagreements have had major implications on the practice of these principles. Many scholars have argued that “humanitarian intervention is increasingly becoming an integral part of western governments’ strategy to transform conflict, decrease violence and set the stage for liberal development”.[11] This changing role of humanitarian aid is often termed ‘New Humanitarianism’, and is seen as “an overt politicization of aid’’.[12]  UNRWA’s directive to uphold the humanitarian principles can be in direct conflict to the foreign policy interests of governments, many of which are its primary donors. This is particularly true in areas of conflict such as Gaza and more recently in Syria. Palestinian refugees from Syria have been severely affected by the ongoing armed conflict, with virtually all of their residential areas experiencing armed engagements or the use of heavy weapons. UNRWA’s humanitarian initiatives for the 540,000 Palestine refugees in Syria has been at the mercy of the conflicting rebels and pro-Assad forces. Thousands of refugees have been stranded in camps that have been utilized as militant strongholds. This has led the Syrian government forces to lay siege on camps such as Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus, obstructing the delivery of aid by UNRWA for months at a time. Once again, the humanitarian imperative has come secondary to political interests.

Moreover, the international donor assistance community has continued to use disciplinary conditionality aimed at producing desired political and social change. This new-humanitarianism becomes vulnerable when it is financially dependent on donor countries with political interests. UNRWA must consider alternative sources and vehicles of funding in order to ensure that the humanitarian principles of independency is upheld.

One of the main debates about humanitarianism is whether it should be a rights-based approach or needs-based approach. One of the main proponents of grounding humanitarian action in rights and laws, Hugo Slim sees a rights-based approach to humanitarianism as giving it an integrated moral, political and legal framework to affirm universal human values.[13]  I think that rights and needs go hand-in-hand and there needs to be a more holistic reasoning behind the operations of UNRWA. UNRWA must defend the rights of Palestinians to sustenance and protection, while upholding the principles of humanitarianism needed to ensure that political justification will not be used to withhold aid and violate these rights.


Political Flow of Aid

While the non-political character of UNRWA’s mandate remains unchanged on paper, its assistance has gradually acquired an exceedingly political dimension that has become embedded in the Palestinian nation-building process. This has been primarily due to the evolution of the political context in which UNRWA operates, namely the rise of the Palestinian national movement and the subsequent manifestation of a Palestinian national identity among the refugee communities. As Lex Takkenberg, current Chief of Ethics Office and previous Deputy Director General at UNRWA, explains, “UNRWA was created as a humanitarian agency with a political agenda. Although politics exists in the paperwork, it has been left dormant since the early 60s. UNRWA’s humanitarian mandate has not changed. UNRWA, unlike the UNHCR does not have a statement in its mandate that asks to seek for a durable solution. However, UNRWA has a duty to advocate for a durable solution”.


The manner in which humanitarian aid and politics interfere in UNRWA’s operations is best demonstrated by two examples. One concerns the Oslo accords, which marked a turning point in donors’ attitude toward Palestinians. Prior to these accords, international donors seemed to be indifferent to the need for strengthening the Palestinian society. However, following the Oslo accords, there was a shift in focus to the reinforcement of civil society institutions in the refugee communities and a gradual move towards empowering the population. By late 1998, the total pledged support was over $4 billion although not all of this was actually delivered.[14] There was a preference for funds to be channeled to support peace and civil society-building projects, and not towards the core budget of UNRWA. Another example of the politicization of aid concerns the flow of international aid as well as the tax revenue collected by Israel, supposedly on behalf of the Palestinian government in the West Bank. Israel uses its control over the tax revenue to apply pressure in the political arena, with devastating effects. For example, in July 2011, Israel delayed the transfer of tax revenue, and international donors (including some Arab countries) failed to fulfil their pledge[15].

UNRWA’s assistance is influenced by geopolitics, and without a strong mandate and support from international entities, its service cannot reach satisfactory levels. UNRWA’s inability to prevent budget cuts and securing sufficient quantities of food aid amidst the current situation of political pressure from Israel and its donors, is a clear sign of the humanitarian agenda being hijacked by a political one. While UNRWA runs massive education and health programs, it still struggles to meet the basic food needs of several refugee camps, particularly those in Syria at the onslaught of the recent crisis.

UNRWA is virtually a non-territorial administration, taking on national governmental responsibilities but does not have any legal jurisdiction over either the territory or its inhabitants. This lack of local autonomy argument has been used by Arab countries and Israel to shift responsibility from them to UNRWA. While UNRWA cannot be subordinated to any sovereign government, no sovereign government would submit to the authority of UNRWA. This has led to UNRWA being used as a political pawn by the Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees.

Members of the Palestinian delegation to the UN cheer the results of a vote granting Palestine non-voting observer status on November 29, 2012. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Members of the Palestinian delegation to the UN cheer the results of a vote granting Palestine non-voting observer status on November 29, 2012. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The United States is by far the biggest donor to UNRWA, contributing $294,023,401 in 2013, representing more than 26% of the entire UNRWA budget. The US views UNRWA as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, whose services to the scattered Palestinian refugee population in absence of a solution, prevents social and political upheavals. UNRWA has been expected to avoid political exposure.[16] In order to preserve UNRWA’s ability to provide services to the refugee communities, the organization strives to remain on good terms with all authorities in the region, Arab and Israeli governments, as well as donor countries. UNRWA has abstained from overt cooperation with PLO since this would have led to political controversies. As an organization that is bound by funds originating from countries that have an active political stake in the region, the form and mechanism of delivery of aid by UNRWA is highly politicized.

Arab states have so far officially rejected all schemes of refugee integration, and continue to emphasize UNRWA responsibility for the refugee communities in their territory. The reasons for this seemingly united Arab position are diverse. Jordan remains an exception, granting Jordanian citizenship to the majority of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The Lebanese government opposes Palestinian integration, and has repeatedly rejected the implementation of large scale infrastructure projects by UNRWA. Moreover, it was an essential component of PLO’s struggle for national liberation to reject all plans of Palestinian refugee integration. However, following the Oslo Accords, there has been increasing collaboration between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and UNRWA. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more and more projects are being implemented jointly by UNRWA and PA. These regions are seemed as test cases for the transfer of UNRWA services to a Palestinian organized body. The PA emphasizes the importance of UNRWA’s existence until a final solution of the refugee problem is achieved. The politics of the Arab states and the PA have major implications on the work that UNRWA does.


Puppets are used as a therapeutic technique in UNRWA schools for children terrified by the sound of bombs and coping with the shock of loosing relatives. Source: desde-palestina.blogspot.com/

Puppets are used as a therapeutic technique in UNRWA schools for children terrified by the sound of bombs and coping with the shock of loosing relatives. Source: desde-palestina.blogspot.com/

The state of Israel is perhaps the biggest political influence on UNRWA’s humanitarian work. Israel has resented UNRWA’s existence for a variety of reasons, but most importantly since the agency symbolized and was a reminder of the human tragedy of Al-Nakba. Israel is opposed to UNRWA reports being discussed at the UN and the extension of UNRWA’s mandate every year[17]. Over the years, Israel has interfered with UNRWA’s operations in a variety of ways, including the bombing of its facilities. On January 6, 2009, there was an Israeli military strike at the UNRWA-run al-Fakhura School in the Jabalia Camp in the Gaza Strip[18]. According to UN and several non-governmental organizations, 42 people were killed, 41 of them civilians. UNRWA attempts to maintain its neutral stance, and in many ways has shielded Palestinian refugees from the Israeli military[19]. Protection extended to the refugees is usually based on humanitarian principles and the agency’s reliance on the basic principles of international law. For example, following the first intifada, UNRWA established the Refugee Affairs Office (RAO) program which resolved issues between the Israeli military and the Palestinians and monitored the camps’ needs for emergency assistance.[20]

Given these facts, one has to conclude that politics plays a huge role in UNRWA’s humanitarian activities, and in turn on Palestinian statehood. Just as the issue is political, so must be the solution. UNRWA’s ability to deliver a satisfactory level of assistance is also limited by a combination of bad policies and bureaucratic dysfunction, in addition to the political constraints. The responsibility for failure does not lie with UNRWA alone, but primarily with the whole system of host countries, donor states, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel.

The failures of specific interventions should not affect the spirit of humanitarian action. Humanitarian agencies should use their power to ensure that their organizations abide by principles and are accountable to their beneficiaries. Thus, UNRWA should continue providing basic services and humanitarian assistance to one of the world’s largest refugee population, but without ignoring the larger political context in which it was created and it currently operates. UNRWA should also try to influence the donors and highlight the refugees’ priorities. Starting a dialogue with the refugees about their vision of implemented activities would help to change the perspective of beneficiaries towards the Agency’s programs.


UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies need to be aware that there is a conflict between traditional humanitarian principles, and the conflict management principles underlying peace and stability. History shows that humanitarian assistance cannot fill the vacuum left by ineffective political arrangements. The challenge for UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations is to understand their role in the growing politicization of aid, to uphold the need for witnessing and the duty of care, and to harness a new consensus for humanitarian principles that is based on a collective respect for humanity. If this trend of political agendas influencing intervention continues, the humanitarian imperative is weakened, and the needs of the victims will go unmet. Understanding and mass awareness of how this New Humanitarianism may radically differ from the principles of humanitarian action should be the first step to counteracting the politicization of aid. International watchdog agencies must be set up in order to disassociate political agenda from the humanitarian imperative. Be it a needs or a rights based approach, delivery of humanitarian aid to those who need it must be at the forefront of the international cooperation agenda. The UN must institute an accountability framework, where any member country found to hinder the humanitarian principles in order to gain political influence will be punished.


UNRWA and the Palestinian Nation-Building Process

UNRWA’s mandate was based on the Economic Survey Mission reports (late 1949), which specifically recommended the socioeconomic integration of the refugees in the host countries through the provision of work opportunities, a large part of the agency’s efforts in the early years involved development/resettlement schemes[21]. It was because of the emphasis on resettlement that UNRWA, despite assurances of the humanitarian nature of its efforts, was from the outset seen in Palestinian political circles as having been created by the Western powers to liquidate the refugees’ political rights through socioeconomic means. Refugee opposition to the resettlement efforts in the early to mid-1950s was such that by the end of the decade, UNRWA was obliged to terminate these programs and reorient its mandate toward general and vocational education[22].


Over the years, UNRWA has set up an administrative infrastructure that is primarily managed in the field by Palestinian staff. This helped preserve a collective, though fragmented, Palestinian identity in exile[23]. Moreover, since UNRWA’s status protected it from interference by host country governments, it rapidly became a forum for Palestinian activism and institutional action. UNRWA establishments, particularly schools and youth centers, have become sites where a collective Palestinian exile identity, grounded on the memory of Palestine and hopes of return, has been created amongst a new generation of refugees who are more nationalistic and politically aware.

UNRWA has been attacked for providing development services to refugees which have been questioned to be detrimental to the concept of Palestinian statehood. Host Arab states and even Palestinian refugees have expressed that sustainable development will integrate the Palestinians in the camps and will erode the zeal for return. UNRWA has consistently denied such claims, as Lex Takkenberg explains, “Your right of return does not depend on the conditions you live in. As long as the plight of the refugees continue, UNRWA has a humanitarian imperative to provide services of quality. This is also a human rights issue.”

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 with the purpose of creating an independent State of Palestine. It is recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by over 100 states with which it holds diplomatic relations, and has enjoyed observer status at the United Nations since 1974.[24] By the time the PLO was established, UNRWA was already deeply integrated in the refugee communities as a provider of welfare and career opportunities. UNRWA’s services were instrumental in ensuring the prosperity of the Palestinian refugee camps, and became bastions of Palestinian nationalism, which was leveraged by PLO as recruiting grounds. Due to its robust position in Lebanon, the PLO used UNRWA facilities for military purposes during the onslaught of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982[25]. PLO has been viewed as a potential threat to UNRWA’s integrity and neutrality due to the political and military stance of PLO[26].

UNRWA’s refusal, usually on technical or financial grounds, to represent Palestinian political interests gave rise to considerable resentment toward the agency.  UNRWA has been accused of having a condescending attitude and of “conspiring” against the refugee cause. However, in view of the socioeconomic, political importance and long history of service, criticism of the organization never goes so far as to question the existence of the agency. While PLO is on the forefront of the movement towards Palestinian statehood, UNRWA has strategically positioned itself as a humanitarian organization that looks after the livelihood of the refugees, thus promoting their ambitions of statehood. At the initiative of the UN and the donor countries, UNRWA’s mandate since 1988 has turned into a socioeconomic prop for the future Palestinian state entity, thus resuming, on a smaller scale, the developmental approach the agency had abandoned more than 30 years ago[27]. Since then, UNRWA and PLO have entered into a non-formal agreement of support. While PLO is able to leverage large amounts of funds for UNRWA, particularly from remittances sent from the Gulf States, UNRWA retains control of the choice of projects and their implementation. Given the fact that the United States is by far the biggest financial contributor to UNRWA, this shielding of PLO from UNRWA’s humanitarian and development work is particularly commendable and has ensured long term sustainability of donor funding.

RWA school in Rafah. Photo: Ahmad Khateib / Flash90

RWA school in Rafah. Photo: Ahmad Khateib / Flash90

UNRWA seeks to empower the refugee population by initiatives that encourage refugees to prove social relief services of its own[28]. Thus UNRWA has initiated a transition process whereby services would be administered by the Palestinians themselves. The emergence of a sustainable Palestinian state is dependent on the entire Palestinian refugee population overcoming social and economic marginalization, and on their strong will to return. The refugee issue is increasingly seen as a Palestinian problem, rather than an international, or UNRWA problem. This realization has urged the Palestinian leadership to support UNRWA’s development goals, and has gained the support of international entities aligned with the Palestinian statehood aspiration.  As Lex Takkenberg describes, “UNRWA has made it clear, and so has its master, the General Assembly, that UNRWA will not go beyond an advocacy role. What we have realized is that – were there to be a political settlement involving some framework agreement including the refugee issue, arrangements made through which Palestinians could choose whether to stay or go to Palestine, compensation, etc. – UNRWA will have to play a very crucial role in the transition.

It will be premature if UNRWA hands all services to the Palestinian authorities now. Although host Arab countries have welcomed the Palestinian refugees, they are not willing to take responsibility of them. Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA cannot subcontract projects to host countries since they are not willing to take that responsibility. This explains why UNRWA is one of the biggest employers among UN agencies, employing over four times as many employees as UNHCR[29]. However, given the scope and reach of its projects, UNRWA is actually one of the most lean and effective agencies within the UN.

Over the decades, the Palestinian refugees’ vision of return has evolved to an increasingly abstract and incremental process, yet remaining a potent motivating concept. The Palestine of pre-Nakba times has changed, leading to a dissonance between the narrative of grandparents and the discovery of the current generation. The young Palestinian population have no memory other than that of occupation.[30] The efforts of UNRWA towards the improvement in the living standards of refugee population is not seen by the Palestinians as detrimental to their political rights. The refugees have organized themselves in the camps such that they remain collective symbols of organization and the right of return. UNRWA is widely regarded as an indispensable pillar upon which the Palestinian state entity could rely on during the transitional period.


Optimism in the face of an Uncertain Future

In the immediate wake of the Oslo agreements, the gap between the political aims of the Palestinian leadership (focused on state formation) and the refugee communities (which insisted on the right of return) seemed less unbridgeable than originally thought. There was more acceptance of UNRWA’s developmental policy that they were pursuing since the intifada of 1987, from both the refugee population and the Palestinian leadership. As Lex Takkenberg explains, “UNRWA has been part of a natural evolution. Changing circumstances have changed the organization. The 1990s saw the change in focus to social services. Poverty was a huge issue, and only in addressing this UNRWA would live up to its promises. The Lebanese Civil War and the first Intifada led towards a systematic plan of protection for the Palestinians. The optimism of Oslo set a new mindset among the host countries and also the donors. There seemed to be hope in the possible end to this crisis. UNRWA was asked to harmonize the relationship with the host countries, so if the Palestinian state was created, UNRWAs work could be transferred to government ministries of Palestine”.

Absiya Jafari, aged more than 100 years old, holds a Palestinian passport issued during the British Mandate belonging to her husband and herself, in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, 23 November. The original village of al-Walaja was completely destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

Absiya Jafari, aged more than 100 years old, holds a Palestinian passport issued during the British Mandate belonging to her husband and herself, in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, 23 November. The original village of al-Walaja was completely destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

UNRWA is a major provider of public services such as education, healthcare and microfinance, services that are usually provided by governments. In order to sustain a decent level of service, its budget needs to grow as a function of population growth and inflation.  Moreover, UNRWA cannot charge taxes to the beneficiaries of its services. Although the UN has handed UNRWA its mandate, the funds come primarily through donor countries. Due to severe recent budget cuts, the agency has had to stretch itself too thin – putting more students in each classroom, cutting down hospital operation hours, etc. This incompatibility of mandate and funding model has resulted in a deteriorating state of UNRWA’s work which then in turn has implications on the standard of life of the Palestinians.

UNRWA will be there until a political settlement has been reached. Struggling with resource constraints, will make it difficult for UNRWA to do business as usual. Maybe a moment will come when UNRWA will not be able to sustain its services. There are other humanitarian crises that are pulling donor funding. Additionally, 65 years into the Palestine issue, donor fatigue is setting in. When asked what his biggest concern was at UNRWA, Lex Takkenberg answered, “In my 25 years of service at UNRWA, I am scared for the first time that we will not be able to pay our staff. We will be forced to close down some services – perhaps vocational training – things that are not the prime focus like education and healthcare. There is a crisis coming in the next two to four years. Perhaps that is necessary for the international community to re-evaluate UNRWA’s role and the funding crisis.”

UNRWA’s provision of personal rights does not go against the collective rights of the Palestinians. Any discourse regarding this has been detrimental for UNRWA’s efforts in uploading the rights of the Palestinians and in advocating for them. UNRWA as an organization will continue to exist as long as the plight of the Palestinians remains unmet. UNRWA is not an end in itself, but part of the means to an end. While it is difficult to predict the geopolitical conditions of the future, it is only through cooperation between UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian refugees, that there can be a hope for a meaningful solution to the Palestinian issue.



Few humanitarian organizations around the world can claim the same international entanglements as UNRWA. Whether through the list of nations from which it derives its mandate, or the multinational group of donors who sustain its operations, or the complexity of its relationships with a variety of host governments, UNRWA finds itself permanently mired in international and local politics. While no humanitarian organization engaged in the delivery of aid from the most prosperous to the disadvantaged can maintain total neutrality, UNRWA finds itself forced to engage in the diplomacy of aid. UNRWA has been placed in charge of keeping alive the hope of the Palestinian nation as if it were a quasi-state or a state within a state.

While UNRWA and the politics surrounding it have drawn criticism from the Palestinian refugees, they still support the organization and understand the importance of its existence. The indispensability of UNRWA to life in the Palestinian camps and to the refugees’ survival is recognized by everyone. While UNRWA is arguably the most effective international humanitarian organization, they are bound by a strict mandate and are at the mercy of Middle Eastern instability and political turmoil.

Clearly, what is needed today is a sincere dialogue between UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and international actors involved in the Palestinian refugee issue aimed at defining the roles and status of each within the framework of the Palestinian nation-state formation process and future of UNRWA.


[1]UNPUBLISHED INTERVIEW: Takkenberg, Lex. Interview by Rahul Mitra. Personal interview. Amman Jordan, May 1st 2014.
[2] Benny Morris, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited”, pp. 602–604. Cambridge University Press 2004.
[3] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. “UNRWA in Figures.” Last modified January 1, 2012.
[4] Belgrad, Eric A., and Nitza Nachmias. The Politics of International Humanitarian Aid Operations. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1997.
[5] UNRWA. “UNRWA chief calls on East Asian countries to strengthen support.” Accessed May 2, 2014.
[6] UNRWA. “UNRWA in Figures.” Accessed April 20, 2014
[7] UNISPAL-United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. “Evolution of UNRWA’s mandate to Palestine refugees – Statement of Commissioner-General (21 September 2003).”
[8] Schiff, Benjamin N. Refugees Unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995. p. 134
[9] Weiss, Thomas G. “Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action.” (1999)
[10] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Humanitarian Principles | OCHA.” Accessed April 20, 2014
[11] Duffield, Mark. “Governing the Borderlands: Decoding the Power of Aid Paper presented at a Seminar on: Politics and Humanitarian Aid: Debates, Dilemmas and Dissension. 2001”
[12] Fox, Fiona. “New Humanitarianism: Does It Provide a Moral Banner for the 21st Century?” Disasters (2001)
[13] Slim, H. “Claiming a humanitarian imperative: NGOs and the cultivation of humanitarian duty.” Refugee Survey Quarterly (2002)
[14] Divine, Donna R. “A Very Political Economy: Peacebuilding and Foreign Aid in the West Bank and Gaza; Rex Brynen.” Digest of Middle East Studies (2000)
[15] The New York Times “West Bank – Tax Withholding by Israel Will Delay Pay checks for Palestinians – Isabel Kershner.” May 9, 2011
[16] UNRWA – Between Refugee Aid and Power Politics: A Memorandum calling upon International Responsibility of the Palestinian Refugee Question. Gerhard Pulfer and Ingrid Gassner, 1997
[17] Cossali, Paul, and Clive Robson. Stateless in Gaza. London: Zed Books, 1986.
[18] Macintyre, Donald; Kim Sengupta (2009-01-07). “Massacre of innocents as UN school is shelled”. London: The Independent. Archived from the original on 16 January 2009.
[19] Ibid., 120-1
[20] Rempel, T. “UNRWA and the Palestine Refugees: A Genealogy of “Participatory” Development.” Refugee Survey Quarterly (2009)
[21] UNISPAL-United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. “Mideast situation/Palestine refugees – Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East final report signed – Press release (19 December 1949).”
[22] Rosenfeld, M. “From Emergency Relief Assistance to Human Development and Back: UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees, 1950-2009.” Refugee Survey Quarterly (2009)
[23] Khalidi, Rashid I., Baruch Kimmerling, and Joel S. Migdal. “Palestinians: The Making of a People.” American Historical Review (1994)
[24] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3210
[25] Brynen, Rex, and Benjamin N. Schiff. “Refugees unto the Third Generation: UN Aid to Palestinians.” American Historical Review (1998)
[26] “The Report of the Commissioner- General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East” June 1969-June 1970
[27] UN General Assembly Resolution 19 48/40, Aid to the Palestine Refugees, 10 December 1993
[28] Joint Programme Proposal, “Gender Equality And Women’s Empowerment In The Occupied Palestinian Territory” 2008-2011
[29] Niklaus Steiner, Mark Gibney, Gil Loescher, Problems of Protection: The UNHCR Refugees and Human Rights. Routledge, Apr 30, 2003
[30] Georges E. Bisharat, “Displacement and Social Identity: Palestinian Refugees in the West Bank,” in Population Displacement and Resettlement: Development and Conflict in the Middle East, ed. by Setenay Shami (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1994), p. 178.

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