The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), destabilized by controversy linked to the October 7 attack, has been an essential actor for millions of Palestinians since its establishment in 1949. Long criticized by Israel, the agency, financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions from States, must today investigate the role of certain of its employees in the attack carried out by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas on Israeli soil.

UNRWA was established at the end of December 1949 by the UN General Assembly after the first Arab-Israeli conflict which broke out following the creation of Israel in May 1948. Its mandate was to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to Palestinian refugees registered in the agency’s area of ​​operations, “pending a just and lasting solution to their situation.”

More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands between April and August 1948 when Israel was created, according to the UN. These people, as well as their descendants, have the status of refugees. UNRWA becomes the sole guarantor by default of their international status. It operates in the Palestinian territories but also in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Some 5.9 million Palestinians are registered with UNRWA and can benefit from services that span education, health care, social services, camp infrastructure, microfinance and emergency assistance, including during armed conflict. More than 540,000 children study in UNRWA schools.

There are a total of around sixty refugee camps managed by the UN agency, including 19 in the West Bank, Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

In the Gaza Strip, where Hamas took power in 2007, the humanitarian situation was already critical before the start of the war between Israel and the Islamist movement. According to UN data from August 2023, 63% of residents suffered from food insecurity and were dependent on international aid. More than 80 percent lived below the poverty line.

The small territory, wedged between Israel, the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt, has eight camps and around 1.7 million refugees, the overwhelming majority of the population, according to the UN. The total population of Gaza is approximately 2.4 million people.

Of the 30,000 people employed by the agency, 13,000 work in the Gaza Strip, spread across more than 300 installations over a territory of 365 km², according to the organization’s website.

In 2018, the United States of Donald Trump, the largest contributor to UNRWA, ended its annual financial aid of $300 million (270 million euros). Israel, which had welcomed the American decision, accuses the organization of “perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by maintaining the idea – which it opposes – that many Palestinians are refugees with the right to return to the land. . The Palestinians, for their part, point out that the United States pays more than $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel.

In May 2019, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East adviser called for the end of UNRWA, accusing it of having “failed in its mission”. The agency responded that it could not be held responsible for the impasse in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Washington resumed its payments from 2021, after the election of President Joe Biden.

On Friday, UNRWA parted ways with several employees (twelve according to the United States) accused of being involved in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israeli soil. The alleged facts were not specified and an investigation was opened.

Israel declared on Saturday that it no longer wanted the UN agency to play any role in Gaza after the war. Washington “temporarily” suspended all additional funding to the UN agency, followed on Saturday by several other donor countries.

In 2022, funds from the UN regular budget and contributions from other UN entities amounted to $44.6 million. The five main donors are, in order, the United States, Germany, the European Union, Sweden and Norway. Also included are Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Switzerland.