United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the near East (UNRWA)

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Relief and development agency of the United Nations, created by General Assembly Resolution 302 of 8 December 1949. UNRWA was created in the aftermath of the 1948 War to provide social services and emergency aid to Palestinian refugees for what was imagined to be a temporary period. Its mandate has been extended repeatedly. It runs the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; it provides schooling, health care, and other social services to over four million registered refugees. It is the UN's largest operation in the Middle East, and its staff of more than 25,000 is made up largely of refugees. Funding comes almost entirely from voluntary contributions from governments and the European Union, rather than from UN assessments.

Some statistics give an idea of the scope of UNRWA's operations. The 59 camps it runs contain 663 schools, covering the first through the ninth grades, plus five secondary schools in Lebanon, with a total enrollment of 491,978, half of whom are girls, and a total staff of 15,814. They also contain eight vocational and technical training centers, with an enrollment of 5,131. The agency's 122 primary health care facilities have a staff of 3,642; medical and dental patient visits and consultations totaled 8,829,639 between July 2003 and June 2004. UNRWA also operates 64 women's program centers and 37 community rehabilitation centers. Between the 1991–1992 fiscal year and 30 June 2004, the agency funded 5,398 poverty alleviation projects and made 76,668 small enterprise loans with a total value of $85,442,882 U.S. The total budget for 2003–2004 was $350,968,000 U.S.

The al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000, has brought violence, curfews, and closures in the Occupied Territories, and imposed heavy new demands on the UNRWA's services. The agency estimates that more than 50 percent of the population is without work, and that between 50 percent and 60 percent live with an income of less than $2 U.S. per day. The United Nations estimates that almost two million Palestinians, 62 percent of the population, have inadequate access to food, shelter, or health services. In 2002 a U.S. Agency for International Development study reported that malnutrition and anemia had increased among Palestinian children to emergency levels. The UNRWA has increased its food aid, feeding almost 220,000 families in the West Bank and Gaza in 2004. The agency has also assisted thousands of refugees whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli military operations, and it is rebuilding the Jenin and Rafah refugee camps. Increases in the demand for health services have been comparable. Schooling has been radically disrupted in many areas, with teachers and students often unable to reach their schools. To cover these increased needs, the agency has made several emergency appeals for additional funds since 2001, and has also cut back on services; schoolbooks and materials, for instance, are no longer provided free of charge. These appeals have not been as successful as the agency had hoped, and the agency is experiencing serious financial problems.

The UNRWA has been controversial, however, at least among supporters of Israel. As evidence that it is not "neutral" or "unbiased" but "anti-Israel"—indeed "pro-terrorist"—detractors have cited the facts that the agency supports people in the camps on the assumption that they have a right to return (an assumption the United Nations supports), rather than inducing them to disperse to other Arab states; that the agency employs Palestinians; and that the agency has criticized Israeli attacks on the camps. They argue that violent resistance groups have recruited and trained in the camps. Critics have also accused UNRWA of being complicit with corrupt Palestinian officials who have stolen food and medicine from the agency and sold them on the black market.

SEE ALSO Aqsa Intifada, al-;Arab-Israel War (1948);Gaza Strip;Resolution 302;Right of Return;West Bank.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

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Organization that aids Palestine refugees.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created by UN General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) on 8 December 1949, with the mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and emergency relief to Palestine refugees who had lost their homes and livelihood as a result of the ArabIsrael War of 1948. Palestine refugees within the purview of UNRWA are persons whose normal residences were in Palestine for a minimum of two years before the 1948 war, and their descendants. In 1949 UNRWA extended assistance to some 750,000 refugees, practically all of them Palestinian Arabs. By 2001 UNRWA had 3,874,738 registered refugees on its rolls, and was present in 59 refugee camps in the Middle East.

UNRWA's humanitarian activities have centered on three major programs: an educational program that ran 647 elementary and preparatory schools and vocational centers with 457,349 students in 1999; a health program with a network of units and medical staff that registered 7,163,056 patient visits in 1999; and a relief and social services program to assist disadvantaged groups. UNRWA also has set up special programs to improve the living conditions in refugee camps, especially housing and environmental sanitation, and to respond to emergencies. UNRWA has often had to carry out its mission in the midst of civil strife and military conflict. During the ArabIsrael War of 1967, more than 350,000 Palestinians fled from the territories seized by Israel; these included 200,000 refugees from the 1948 war, who were displaced for a second time. Later, the 1970 fighting between Jordan's army and the armed elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) stationed in Jordan, another ArabIsrael War (October 1973), the Lebanese civil war that started in 1975, Israel's invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and in 1982, the Palestinian uprising (Intifada) and Israel's response to it, and more recently, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf Crisis (19901991) all had serious effects on the conditions of Palestine refugees and the work of UNRWA. The organization was long headquartered in Beirut, but due to the Lebanese civil war it moved to Vienna in 1978. In 1994 it announced that it was moving to Gaza, to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The move was completed by July 1996.

UNRWA's budget is funded 95 percent by voluntary contributions. In 2002 the UN General Assembly approved a cash and in-kind budget of $326.2 million, of which UNRWA actually received $305.9 million. With the significant increases in costs associated with the wide-scale destruction wrought during the al-Aqsa Intifada that began in October 2000, the agency's budgetary needs have increased considerably. Yet the shortfall had to be made up by cutbacks. Actual expenditures during 2002 were $293.8 million, $32.3 million less than had been budgeted for by the General Assembly. By early 2003, UNRWA was facing a dire financial situation, and had made six emergency appeals for additional funding within a year.

see also aqsa intifada, al-; arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1967); arabisrael war (1973); gaza (city); gulf crisis (19901991); intifada (19871991); palestine liberation organization (plo); palestinian authority; refugees: palestinian.


UNRWA web site. Available from <www.un.org/unrwa>.

Viorst, Milton. Reaching for the Olive Branch: UNRWA and Peace in the Middle East. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1989.

f. t. liu
updated by michael r. fischbach

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United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East