Israel’s accusations against 12 employees of the U.N. aid agency for Palestinians, the main aid operation in Gaza, are the latest episode of a decades-long friction between Israel and the group.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, is one of the oldest U.N. agencies, founded in 1949 to care for Palestinian Arabs who had fled or been forced from their homes during the wars surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in the late 1940s. When a separate U.N. agency was later founded for refugees of other conflicts, UNRWA remained independent.
To Palestinians and their supporters, the group remains an essential lifeline for millions of descendants of those refugees, whose status and future has never been resolved in negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It is one of the largest employers in Gaza, with 13,000 people, mostly Palestinians, on staff.
Many of them live in underdeveloped urban neighborhoods — still known as refugee camps — in cities across the Middle East. In Gaza, they form the majority of the population, and UNRWA plays a pivotal role in providing them with education, social services and — during the current war — aid and shelter.
“Because their plight as refugees has never been resolved, they continue to be refugees,” said Chris Gunness, a former spokesman for UNRWA.
“These are some of the most vulnerable people in the Middle East,” he said. “They badly need a U.N agency that will provide them with emergency and humanitarian services.”
For Israel, however, the group and its advocacy are an obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many Palestinians want the refugees to return to their former homes in what is now Israel. Israel fears such a migration would undermine Israel’s Jewish character. Israelis say that UNRWA’s existence separate from the wider U.N. refugee protection system prevents them from properly setting down roots elsewhere in the Middle East.
“UNRWA became a central mechanism in keeping a permanent question mark over the existence of a Jewish state,” said Einat Wilf, the co-author of a book about UNRWA. The organization helps to foster “a nationalism that is singularly focused on the idea of return and revenge,” she added.
That wider dispute forms the backdrop to regular clashes over what UNRWA schools teach their students and UNRWA’s relationship with Hamas.
Israel says UNRWA’s school curriculums foster opposition to Israel’s existence, a claim dismissed by UNRWA, and accuses the group of falling under Hamas’s influence.
UNRWA has consistently stressed its neutrality, sometimes criticizes Hamas and has called out militants for using its facilities to store weapons. According to the agency’s website, it has disciplined and even terminated staff for taking part in inappropriate political activities. UNRWA also shares lists of its employees with regional governments, including Israel.
In 2021, UNRWA reassigned its Gaza director, Matthias Schmale, after he was perceived to have complimented the “huge sophistication” of Israeli strikes on Gaza during a brief war that year. Late last year, the group accused Hamas of having “removed fuel and medical equipment from the agency’s compound in Gaza City,” before later removing the posts following a backlash.
In 2005, the UNRWA chief at the time, Peter Hansen, said it was likely that UNRWA staff included Hamas members and supporters, given the scale of support for Hamas within the wider Gazan population, but said they worked according to U.N. values while on the job.
Still, experts say that in spite of the tensions, some Israeli security officials privately accept the benefits of UNRWA’s existence.
“The view of the Israeli security establishment has long been that UNRWA is ultimately preferable to what they think the alternative might be without it,” said Anne Irfan, the author of a book about UNRWA and Palestinian refugees. “It provides services that otherwise under international law would really come under the remit of the occupying power.”
Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel.