The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Agency: Funded and Advised by the State Department’s Refugee and Migration Bureau

By Nayla Rush on April 15, 2024

President Biden recently ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “defer” the removal of (and give work permits to) Palestinian illegal aliens because of the fighting in Gaza; the number of beneficiaries is estimated to be 6,000. The total number of Palestinians resettled here through normal refugee resettlement channels amounts to a little over 2,000 from 2001 through February 2024. Although there have been some calls to resettle more refugees from Gaza, there are no current plans to do that, and much opposition.

Despite these relatively small numbers, the issue of Palestinian refugees is important, not just in the obvious foreign policy sense, but also to U.S. migration and refugee policy. The United Nations has two refugee agencies: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for all other refugees in the world. The United States is the largest funder of UNRWA, and the U.S. official in charge of the State Department’s refugee efforts — both assistance abroad and resettlement here — is also the head of the UNRWA’s advisory commission.

This report offers an overview of UNRWA’s history, financing, staff, and institutional culture, as well as its various scandals, including its ties to Hamas.

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According to intelligence reports shared at the end of January, at least 12 employees of UNRWA — including primary or secondary school teachers and social workers — were involved in Hamas's October 7 terrorist attack and around 10 percent of its Gaza staff (some 12,000 employees) were found to have strong ties with Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Moreover, as much as 50 percent of UNRWA employees in Gaza have at least one close relative with ties to terrorist groups according to these reports. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken deemed these reports to be “highly, highly credible”.

These accusations raise, once again, serious concerns about UNRWA’s mandate, leadership, staff (mostly local), and financing.

In response to these accusations, UNRWA terminated the contracts of some of these staff members and launched an investigation. This is, according to the State Department’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, indicative of the fact that “UNRWA found that the evidence that was presented to them was credible enough.”

The United States (along with other donor countries) decided to pause “additional” unobligated funding to UNRWA pending a UN investigation in this matter. But this pause is more about throwing dust in one’s eyes than anything else. Even the State Department spokesperson Miller “downplayed” its significance by explaining it had already provided most of the money allocated by Congress toward that funding this fiscal year: Since the beginning of FY 2024 (October 1, 2023), the U.S. government gave UNRWA $121 million of the $121.3 million allocated funding; which means that only $300,000 was suspended.

Regardless of this pause, the overall funding available this fiscal year to UNRWA is still unknown since the U.S. government is currently operating under a continuing resolution (CR). Further funding to UNRWA will depend on the amount to be determined in a supplemental budget request and a CR, or a full appropriations bill.

A national security supplemental bill that was discussed (but did not pass) included $10 billion in humanitarian assistance requested by President Biden to cover all those impacted by the wars, including in Ukraine and Gaza. Of that $10 billion, $1.4 billion would go to Gaza. As funding to UNRWA remains paused, money should be redirected to other partners to provide assistance in Gaza, like the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and other NGOs. Simultaneously, the U.S. government is working with donor countries to ensure that they can continue supporting UNRWA.

A new funding bill is being debated in Congress, if passed it would bar funding to UNRWA through March 2025 while allocating $1.4 billion to Gaza.

Moreover, while some countries paused funding to UNRWA, others did just the opposite and increased theirs.

UNRWA also receives funding from private institutions, some of which are U.S.-based nonprofits such as: UNRWA USA National Committee (UNRWA USA, a separate nonprofit organization “that supports the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)); Islamic Relief USA; Mercy-USA; and Open Society Foundation. Will these U.S.-based organizations pause their funding to UNRWA as well or will they instead increase it in an effort to compensate for others’ pause?

What is clear is that the Biden administration believes that UNRWA is “indispensable” and that it fully supports its work in Gaza:

We think it’s critical. There is no other humanitarian player in Gaza who can provide food and water and medicine at the scale that UNRWA does. We want to see that work continued.

So does the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who, reacting to the pause in funding, urged UN member states who are UNRWA donors to “guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s life-saving work” since the agency “is the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza”. (Emphasis added.)

This report covers numerous aspects of UNRWA since its creation, its mandate, staff, funding, and leadership. It also follows steps taken by the United States as well as the international community to counter accusations linking UNRWA staff to terrorism.

A number of takeaways:

  • There are 35.3 million registered refugees worldwide: 29.4 million are under UNHCR’s mandate and 5.9 million (all Palestinians) are under UNRWA’s.
  • The United States is the top funder of UNRWA.
  • UNRWA staff is composed of 30,000 employees (mostly Palestinian refugees). UNHCR staff totals 18,879.
  • UNRWA staff live in a closed social setting where biases and beliefs are easily transmissible, if not impossible to resist. That these employees have some type of sympathy or adherence to Hamas should surprise no one.
  • In December 2022, the majority of UN member states voted to extend UNRWA’s mandate until June 30, 2026. The United States abstained.
  • UNRWA has developed into the largest provider of social services for Palestinians, as well as the main employer of Palestinian refugees.
  • Palestinian refugee status is inherited: Descendants of Palestinian male refugee, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration under UNRWA.
  • UNRWA established itself as a quasi-state institution, taking on responsibilities traditionally assigned to national governments in numerous fields such as education, health, and social services.
  • UNRWA has provided an institutional framework where a specific cultural and political Palestinian identity has been preserved and reproduced.
  • UNRWA's education system resulted in the emergence of a new generation of refugees politically more aware and more open to modern nationalist approaches than the generation that left Palestine in 1948-49. UNRWA helped preserve a collective Palestinian identity in exile.
  • UNRWA’s empathy toward Palestinian refugees is clear. While early UNRWA reports presented Palestinian refugees as lacking solidarity, later reports sympathized with their political demands, especially their right to return. UNRWA reports were even quoted in Palestinian officials' speeches at the United Nations and other international events.
  • UNRWA has an advisory commission (AdCom), which is tasked with advising and assisting the Commissioner-General of UNRWA in carrying out the agency’s mandate.
  • The current chair of AdCom is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julieta Valls Noyes, who heads the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), which is the lead U.S. agency in assisting refugees and displaced persons abroad, as well as resettling refugees in the United States.
  • The results of the several “independent” investigations into UNRWA will soon be out. Measures, guidelines, and reforms will be announced; and, as a result, funding and operations will resume as normal. But what will not change is UNRWA’s own leadership culture and staff mindset.

UN Staff

Years ago, as I began researching the UN's role in the U.S. refugee resettlement program, I forewarned of the likely "subjectivity" of UNHCR's national staff (citizens of the countries where they are working, usually in regions of turmoil and economic unrest) responsible for refugee status determinations and resettlement referrals. Most of UNHCR’s workforce is based in the field close to where refugees are and is recruited locally.

I questioned the U.S. government’s near-total reliance on this UN local staff that was choosing who ultimately gets a chance to become American. The staff members’ appraisals can be at best complaisant and at worst open to the highest bidder. Cases of corruption and fraud within UNHCR were indeed reported in numerous countries. UNHCR staffers have been accused of accepting bribes from refugees in order to refer them for resettlement in a Western country. While corruption and preferential treatment are not to be taken lightly, participation in terrorist actions is beyond appalling.

That said, just as we do not expect resettled refugees to necessarily leave their beliefs and biases behind, we should not expect UNRWA staff (who are Palestinian refugees themselves) to do so either.

Following a strike by UNRWA workers who were demanding higher pay in January 2023, Guterres commended UNRWA staff for “their commitment, dedication and professionalism”, adding that they deserved the “best pay possible for their critical work”.

UN Refugee Agencies: UNHCR and UNRWA

Two UN entities are dedicated to assisting refugees: UNHCR and UNRWA. While UNHCR assists any refugee, UNRWA targets only Palestinian refugees. The United States is the number-one donor of both UNHCR and UNRWA.

The UNHCR 2023 budget was $10.2 billion, while the UNRWA 2023 budget was 2.2 billion. The U.S. government gave $1.9 billion to UNHCR and $371 million to UNRWA in 2023.

UNHCR works in 138 countries, while UNRWA provides assistance to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

There are 35.3 million registered refugees worldwide; 29.4 million are under the mandate of UNHCR and the remaining 5.9 million (all Palestinians) are under UNRWA’s mandate. Palestinian refugees within the UNRWA fields of operations are not under UNHCR’s mandate.

UNRWA’s staff is composed of over 30,000 employees, most of whom are local staff based in the Middle East who are themselves Palestinian refugees and a small number of international staff (120 positions); 13,000 of UNRWA staff work in Gaza. By comparison, UNHCR has 18,879 staff, 87 percent of whom are local staff based in the field.

UNHCR has the international mandate to determine who is (and who is not) attributed refugee status, to provide refugee assistance, and to decide who is eligible for resettlement in third countries. Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA does not have a mandate to resettle Palestinian refugees and has no authority to seek lasting durable solutions for refugees. While UNHCR only offers temporary protection and aid, UNRWA operates as a “quasi-state body delivering services akin to a state”.

Moreover, registration with UNRWA “does not afford refugee status under the 1951 Geneva Convention, but provides services and assistance based on a definition that sets out eligibility for receipt of such services”.

Refugee status for Palestinians is inherited: The descendants of Palestinian male refugees, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration under UNRWA.

UNRWA Mandate

UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 to carry out direct assistance for Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. It took over from the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR), established in 1948. Only the UN General Assembly can define UNRWA’s mandate.

Since its creation, UNRWA has developed into “the largest provider of social services” for Palestinians, as well as “the main employer of Palestinian refugees”.

The agency began its operations on May 1, 1950; its mandate, which was intended to be temporary, has been repeatedly renewed by the UN General Assembly ever since. Most recently, in December 2022, the vast majority of UN member states voted to extend UNRWA’s mandate until June 30, 2026 (the United States abstained).

The mandate was renewed through the adoption of the draft resolution II “Assistance to Palestine refugees” by a recorded vote of 157 in favor to one against (Israel), with 10 abstentions (Cameroon, Canada, Guatemala, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, United States, and Uruguay). The adoption of this resolution affirms the need for UNRWA to continue its work, extends its mandate until June 30, 2026, and calls upon donors to strengthen their efforts to meet the agency’s anticipated needs.

UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 War”. Moreover, the “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration”. In 1950, UNRWA was assisting around 750,000 Palestinian refugees; today, 5.9 million are registered as Palestinian refugees and are eligible for UNRWA services.

UNRWA has a humanitarian and development mandate to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees “pending a just and lasting solution to their plight”. Resolution 37/120 (J) added protection to the list of UNRWA responsibilities, urging the agency to “undertake effective measures to guarantee the safety and security and the legal and human rights of the Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories”.

The underlying principle shared by Arab states and political parties early on was that Palestinians had an “unquestioned entitlement to UNRWA's services pending the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194”, particularly their right to return to Palestine.

The agency does not have a mandate to engage in political negotiations or durable solutions. That said, over the years, the agency established itself as a quasi-state institution, taking on responsibilities traditionally assigned to national governments in numerous fields such as education, health, and social services.

UNRWA Political Role in the Preservation of a Palestinian Identity

The nonpolitical character of UNRWA's mandate may be set on paper; but in reality, UNRWA’s assistance “has progressively acquired an eminently political dimension that has gradually become embedded in the Palestinian nation-building process”. This political denominator has been reinforced by UNRWA’s activities. To facilitate its work, UNRWA gave ration cards to every "Palestine Bona Fide refugee", defined as "a person whose normal residence was Palestine for a minimum of two years preceding the conflict in 1948, and who, as a result of this conflict, lost both his home and his means of livelihood and took refuge in 1948 in one of the countries where UNRWA provides relief”. This card came to be considered by Palestinian refugees as a “legal justification” for their right to return and/or get compensation. The card itself became an official and, at times, only piece of document attesting to a physical link with Palestine and a symbol of Palestinian identity.

In this sense, UNRWA became the de facto political representative for the Palestinians on the international stage, both as a testimony to their condition and a reminder of their right to return. UNRWA’s bias toward the Palestinian cause was also notable. An “empathy” toward Palestinian refugees appeared early on in the mid-1950s in the annual reports of UNRWA's Commissioner General. While early reports presented Palestinian refugees as lacking solidarity, later reports sympathized with their political demands, especially their right to return. UNRWA reports were even quoted in Palestinian officials' speeches at the United Nations and other international events.

Because of its UN status and mandate, UNRWA was somewhat protected from interference by governments hosting Palestinian refugees. This opened the door for the agency to become “a privileged forum for Palestinian activism” while members of the Communist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, Fatah, the Ba'ath, and other Arab nationalist parties “secured positions in the agency, politicizing the staff”. UNRWA’s schools and youth activities centers became places where a collective Palestinian identity based on the claim of return was constantly reactivated and transmitted to younger generations.

In fact, UNRWA's education system resulted in the emergence of a new generation of refugees “politically more aware and more open to modern nationalist approaches than the generation that left Palestine in 1948-49”. UNRWA helped develop, preserve, and transmit a collective Palestinian identity in exile.

In the end, UNRWA has provided an “institutional framework where a specific cultural and political Palestinian identity has been preserved and reproduced”.

UNRWA Fields of Operations

UNRWA provides assistance to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees scattered in different countries in the Middle East: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (not all live in refugee camps):

  • Syria: 567,730 registered refugees and 12 Palestinian refugee camps.
  • Lebanon: 498,292 registered refugees and 12 camps.
  • Jordan: 2,307,011 registered refugees and 10 camps; the largest number of Palestinian refugees of all UNRWA fields. Most have full Jordanian citizenship.
  • West Bank: 831,537 registered refugees and 19 camps.
  • Gaza: 1,476,406 registered refugees and eight camps.

UNRWA has two headquarters offices (Gaza and Amman), five field offices (Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank), and four representative/liaison offices (New York, Geneva, Brussels, and Cairo). The Gaza headquarters includes the Office of the Commissioner-General along with the External Relations Department, the Department of Legal Affairs, and the Public Information Office.

The Amman headquarters office includes the Finance Department, the Department of Human Resources, the Department of Administrative Support, the Department of Infrastructure, and the Department of Internal Oversight.

UNRWA Leadership

The current commissioner general of UNRWA is Philippe Lazzarini of Switzerland. He was appointed to the post on March 18, 2020, by UN Secretary General Guterres. Lazzarini joined the United Nations in 2003 and served in various posts within the organization. Prior to joining the United Nations, he worked in the private sector within the banking system in Geneva followed by 10 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Lazzarini follows Pierre Krähenbühl of Switzerland who led the agency from March 30, 2014, until November 6, 2019. Krähenbühl resigned on November 6, 2019, amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement. In December 2023, he was appointed to lead ICRC (he started as director general on April 1, 2024, when the current incumbent, Robert Mardini, finished his mandate).

Krähenbühl’s resignation came four months after the Arabic news outlet Al Jazeera, revealed the existence of a confidential UN internal ethics report accusing him and his inner circle of “abuses of authority for personal gain”. Al Jazeera obtained a copy of the report from a source close to UNRWA who was worried about the agency’s lack of action after the report was sent to Guterres’ office in December 2018. The “inner circle” included Krähenbühl’s Senior Advisor and alleged mistress, Maria Mohammedi; Deputy Commissioner General Sandra Mitchell (who, prior to her post at UNRWA, was the vice-president of international programs of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)), and Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan. All have left the agency since.

Following Al Jazeera’s report, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland temporarily suspended their contributions to UNRWA.

The report described "credible and corroborated" allegations of serious ethical abuses, involving top official Krähenbühl, engaging in "sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives".

Krähenbühl, who was married, reportedly created in 2015 a post of “special advisor” to the commissioner general, i.e., to himself, after an "extreme fast-track" process. The post was offered to a colleague, Maria Mohammedi, with whom he was allegedly in a relationship. This enabled her to travel with him on business-class flights across the world.

An internal review by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) cleared Krähenbühl of fraud and misusing the agency's funds, but did retain several managerial failures. Krähenbüh’s resignation interrupted the UN disciplinary process against him.

After he resigned, Secretary-General António Guterres thanked him for his “commitment and dedication to UNRWA and to Palestine refugees”.

UNRWA Advisory Commission

UNRWA has an advisory commission (AdCom, per UN Resolution 302 (IV) created on December 8, 1949), which is “tasked with advising and assisting the Commissioner-General of UNRWA in carrying out the Agency’s mandate”. The work of UNRWA and the advisory commission is guided “by the UN General Assembly resolutions concerning Palestine refugees”.

AdCom started with four members; it is now made up of 29 member countries and four observers. The 29 countries are: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The four observers are: the European Union, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and Palestine.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is the second-largest international organization after the United Nations and “is the collective voice of the Muslim world”. The organization’s mission is:

to galvanize the Ummah into a unified body and have actively represented the Muslims by espousing all causes close to the hearts of over 1.5 billion Muslims of the world. The Organization has consultative and cooperative relations with the UN and other inter-governmental organizations to protect the vital interests of the Muslims.

In a meeting on March 5, 2024, to respond to the “Continuing Israeli Aggression Against the Palestinian People”, OIC condemned “the unprecedented comprehensive barbaric aggression against civilians in the besieged Gaza Strip”, called “to stop and confront the crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces against the Palestinian people”, and reaffirmed “the centrality of the Palestinian issue to the entire Islamic Ummah”.

AdCom meets twice a year, usually in June and November, to discuss issues of importance to UNRWA and to provide advice and assistance to the Commissioner-General of the agency. Member states and observers meet more regularly through the subcommittee of the advisory commission.

The advisory commission is led by a chair and a vice-chair, each representing a host country and a donor country. They are appointed annually from among its members according to alphabetical rotation.

The current chair and vice chairs are (July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024):

Chair: United States: Julieta Valls Noyes, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), U.S. Department of State.

Vice chairs:

  • Egypt: Mohamed Samir, ambassador of Egypt in Amman, Jordan.
  • European Union: Henrike Trautmann, acting director, European Commission, DG NEAR, Neighbourhood South and Turkey.

In mid-November 2023 (meaning, after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel), Noyes traveled to Jordan as “Head of Delegation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) Advisory Commission”. Lazzarini welcomed Noyes, “who is with us today for the first time”, to the November 14 AdCom meeting in Amman and thanked her: “Your and your team’s engagement has been key to our ability to function this year.”

On November 21, 2023, AdCom met again via Zoom. Lazzarini thanked the members for their “support for the Agency during one of the darkest chapters in the region’s history”. He was particularly grateful to the chair, Noyes, “for convening the AdCom at this critical time”, when “a war of narratives is being waged to dehumanize Palestinians and de-legitimize UNRWA”. He urged the members of AdCom “to defend with conviction the Agency that you know so well” and addressed Noyes directly:

We need the support of the Advisory Commission to make it clear to the world that the attacks on UNRWA are baseless and malicious. We need immediate funds to continue our life-saving operations.

What is the exact role and engagement of Noyes, a high-ranking U.S. State Department official, within UNRWA? If a chair was to be chosen alphabetically in a rotation manner between a donor and a host country, surely another American, perhaps the head of an NGO, could have held that position. Moreover, if the chair was here to assist UNRWA implement its work, does this mean the U.S. government is partly to blame for UNRWA’s failures and biases? There have been calls for Lazzarini to resign following allegations linking his staff to terrorist groups. Should Royes resign as well from her ADCom chair post?

UNRWA Funding

UNRWA relies primarily on voluntary contributions from UN member states and multilateral organizations, such as the European Union. UNRWA also receives funding from the UN regular budget (mainly to support its international staff) and contributions from other UN entities. In 2022, these amounted to $44.6 million. The salaries of UNRWA’s international staff (120 out of the agency total of 30,000) are paid by the UN General Secretariat in New York.

Top donors include the United States, Germany, the European Union, and Sweden, together contributing over 60 percent of UNRWA's budget of $1.6 billion in 2022.

The 2022 contributions:

  • United States: $343,937,718
  • Germany: $202,054,285
  • EU: $114,199,150
  • Sweden: $60,969,987
  • Norway: $34,180,677
  • Japan: $30,152,202
  • France: $28,909,838
  • Saudi Arabia: $27,000,000
  • Switzerland: $25,534,028
  • Turkey: $25,199,080

UNRWA also partners and receives funds from businesses, foundations, and nonprofits, including ones based in the United States such as UNRWA USA, Islamic Relief USA, Mercy-USA, and the Open Society Foundation.

On December 26, 2023, Guterres appointed Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands as senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2720 (2023). Kaag is to facilitate, coordinate, monitor, and verify humanitarian relief consignments to Gaza and establish a UN mechanism to accelerate humanitarian relief consignments to Gaza. In executing these functions, she will be financially supported by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS). Kaag began her assignment on January 8, 2024, and is based in Amman, Jordan. It has been reported that Kaag was “hand-picked” by the United States for this position.

Richard Gowan, UN specialist at the International Crisis Group, told PassBlue, a multimedia news company that covers, among other global issues, the US-UN relationship: “I think UN officials hope that she [Kaag] can maintain better relations with the Israelis than Guterres and other leading UN figures who clashed with the Netanyahu government in late 2023.”

Kaag is a Mideast and public relations expert who speaks several languages, including Arabic. She is married to Anis al-Qaq, a former Palestinian diplomat to Switzerland and senior adviser to Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader. In 1996, Kaag called Benjamin Netanyahu, who was that year elected Israel’s prime minister for the first time, a “racist demagogue”.

Kaag is a Dutch diplomat and former politician. Most recently, she was the finance minister in the Netherlands; she left this position and Dutch politics to take on this new assignment. She had previously served in several senior positions with the United Nations, including at UNRWA.

In early March, Kaag met with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power, who was visiting a WFP warehouse in Amman. From Amman, Power announced $58 million in funding from the United States to WFP and other aid groups directed toward assistance for Gaza and the West Bank.

Kaag presented her first report to the UN Security Council and Guterres 20 days into her appointment as aid coordinator; this report was not made public. She is expected to give another brief detailing her progress.

The United States: Top Funder of UNRWA

U.S. contributions to international organizations are mainly provided through the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account in annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS) appropriations acts. Congress does not decide how much money to give UNRWA; rather, it appropriates a specific amount to the MRA account and it is up to the executive branch to allocate funds based on humanitarian needs and U.S. foreign policy priorities. UNRWA can also be funded through other accounts and supplemental appropriations bills.

Under the Trump administration, U.S. contributions to UNRWA decreased, first from nearly $360 million in 2017 to $65 million in 2018, then to zero in 2019 and 2020. The decision to stop funding UNRWA was reversed by President Biden. In 2023, the Biden administration provided $422 million to UNRWA. U.S. contributions to UNRWA from 2013 through 2022 are as follows:

  • FY 2022: $364,000,000
  • FY 2021: $318,400,000
  • FY 2020: $0
  • FY 2019: $0
  • FY 2018: $65,000,000
  • FY 2017: $359,265,585
  • FY 2016: $359,498,574
  • FY 2015: $390,460,183
  • FY 2014: $398,697,923
  • FY 2013: $294,000,000

Suspending or Expanding Funding

While several donors decided to pause funding to UNRWA in the wake of these accusations, others are continuing their financial support, with some even deciding to increase it.

Those who initially paused their funding include Australia, Austria, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (Many have since lifted their temporary pause.) Those who are continuing their financial support include Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Slovenia, Spain, and Turkey. Several countries, such as Portugal, Norway, and Ireland, decided to increase their contributions instead of pausing them.

Portugal decided to provide additional support to UNRWA with an aid package of $1.08 million. Portugal’s contribution to UNRWA totaled $105,288 in 2022.

Norway refused to cut funding to UNRWA; instead it announced a fresh donation of 275 million Norwegian kroner ($26 million). Norway’s contribution to UNRWA totaled $34,180,677 in 2022.

Ireland announced 20 million euros ($21.46 million) to UNRWA while urging countries that have suspended funding to resume and even expand their support to the agency. Ireland’s contributions to UNRWA totaled $8,509,726 in 2022.

Canada did pause funding to UNRWA following the accusations linking its staff to Hamas. However, on March 5 it reversed this decision and announced it was resuming support with a scheduled payment in April of $25 million and new funding to determined. According to government sources, the Canadian government was comfortable resuming funding after “officials received an interim report from the United Nations examining the allegations”.

France, UNRWA’s fourth-top donor, did not suspend its funding to the agency. It actually increased its funding in 2023 to $65 million, because of the “disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza”. France is waiting for the results of the investigations launched recently to decide what to do regarding its 2024 contributions. France’s contribution to UNRWA totaled $28,909,838 in 2022.

The European Union is the third-biggest donor to UNRWA after the United States and Germany. Yet, shortly after accusations involving UNRWA’s staff with the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack were made public, the EU released a statement stating that humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank “will continue unabated through partner organisations” but that “no additional funding to UNRWA is foreseen until the end of February”. Despite the fact that two UN investigations into these accusations against the agency were already underway, the EU’s executive branch not only demanded a separate audit but wanted to appoint its own experts to carry it out. It insisted on a review of all UNRWA staff and on the control systems that are needed to prevent the possible involvement of its staff with terrorist groups.

Part of its audit would involve a new “pillar assessment” of UNRWA. The EU routinely carries out checks of agencies that it funds to ensure they are complying with EU standards on a regular basis. One “has been concluded very recently” as conceded by the EU’s crisis management commissioner. UNRWA was also included in an audit the EU launched in October, which concluded that no funds were reaching Hamas.

The 82 million euro ($89 million) payment due from the EU by March was put on hold pending an audit of UNRWA’s recruitment procedures, a reinforcement of its internal oversight mechanisms, and the vetting of its 30,000 staff. The EU’s executive branch demanded an audit of UNRWA by EU-appointed independent experts.

On March 1, the European Union announced it would pay 50 million euros ($54 million) to UNRWA after the agency accepted its terms for an audit. The funds were to be dispatched the second week of March after UNRWA confirmed in writing that it accepted the EU's conditions. Two further payments each worth 16 million euros ($17.3 million) will be given to UNRWA as it continues to comply with their agreement.

Two “Independent” Investigations

Following accusations involving some of its staff members, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini released a statement on January 26, 2024, announcing he was terminating the contracts of these staff members and launching an investigation to establish the truth quickly. UN Secretary General Guterres confirmed that out of the 12 individuals cited in the accusations, nine were immediately fired, one is confirmed dead, and the identities of the remaining two are being clarified, adding that an independent review was forthcoming.

Lazzarini described his decision to fire nine staff members as “reverse due process”, adding:

I could have suspended them, but I have fired them. And now I have an investigation, and if the investigation tells us that this was wrong, in that case at the UN we will take a decision on how to properly compensate [them].

Lazzarini was adamant: “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

State Department spokesperson Miller reiterated the U.S. government’s “confidence in the UN’s ability to conduct this investigation”, adding: “We would demand full accountability, and of course that could include prosecutions for anyone that had violated the law.”

But prosecuted where, by whom, and under which judicial system? Israel withdrew its military forces from Gaza in 2005. Hamas won the elections in 2006 (no elections have been held since in any Palestinian territory) and forcibly took control of the Gaza strip from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007. It has been controlling Gaza since, both militarily and politically; it established a judiciary and put in place authoritarian institutions. Hamas governs in accordance with sharia law.

So, who is going to prosecute UN staff members in Gaza (who are, for the most part, Palestinian refugees) and to which authority will they be accountable? Hamas?

Two investigations into UNRWA were initiated at the beginning of 2024. One was ordered by Lazzarini on January 26 following accusations linking UNRWA staff to Hamas, the second, announced on January 17 (prior to these accusations), is an independent external review of UNRWA following constant criticism of the agency.

The first “transparent independent investigation” initiated by Lazzarini will look into these “heinous allegations” of links to Hamas and will help establish the facts. This investigation will be conducted by the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), “the highest investigative authority in the UN system” according to Lazzarini.

Thomas White, director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza and UN deputy humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, reassures us: “Full accountability and transparency are expected out of this process [OIOS’ investigation], should the allegations be substantiated.”

But how independent can this investigation be since it is being conducted by a UN internal office?

Here’s a look at the UN oversight body, OIOS, based in New York. The under secretary general for OIOS is appointed by the UN secretary general, following consultations with member states for a five-year term (non-renewable). Fatoumata Ndiaye of Senegal is the current OIOS under secretary general. She was appointed in October 2019 by Guterres. Ben Swanson of the United Kingdom is the current OIOS assistant secretary general. He was appointed in July 2021 by Guterres.

In 1999, OIOS conducted an investigation to determine “whether or not UNRWA, particularly its field office in Lebanon, was subject to endemic corruption, as alleged in an intense local media campaign”. The investigation was carried out in Lebanon between January and February 1999. In its final report, “Investigation into the field office in Lebanon of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East”, OIOS concluded that the “UNRWA construction programme in Lebanon was not endemically corrupt and the specific allegations presented to the Office of Internal Oversight Services were not substantiated”.

In 2020, as mentioned above, OIOS cleared then-UNRWA chief Krähenbühl of misusing the agency's funds.

Examples of other reviews conducted by OIOS recently include:

  • Evaluation of the incorporation of climate-related security risks by United Nations Peace Operations (March 2023);
  • ”Synthesis Review on Advancing Gender Equality in the United Nations Secretariat: (July 2023); and
  • Evaluation of the prevention, response, and victim support efforts against sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations Secretariat staff and related personnel (March 2021).

The second investigation into UNRWA that was planned prior to these terrorism-linked accusations is meant to be a “full, independent review of the agency”. This independent review by external experts “will help UNRWA strengthen its framework for the strict adherence of all staff to the humanitarian principles”. It has taken on added urgency after the accusations targeting UNRWA’s staff and the suspension of funding by major donors.

The review is led by former French Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna (she was asked to leave that post on January 10, 2024). She will work with three research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The group began its work on February 14 and was to submit an interim report to Guterres by the end of March; a final report is to be released by late April 2024.

Catherine Colonna is a French diplomat and politician. She holds a master’s and a postgraduate degree in public law. She also graduated from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) — Public Service Section — and the National School of Administration (ENA). Colonna served as the French ambassador to Italy and the United Kingdom. She was the permanent representative of France to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the permanent representative of France to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Her last post was under President Macron’s minister for Europe and foreign affairs (May 2022-January 2024).

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden combines “multi-disciplinary human rights research with education and support to practitioners to advance the practical application of human rights and humanitarian law”. Their vision is “just and inclusive societies with effective realisation of human rights for all”. Peter Lundberg, the Institute’s executive director, published the following report in 2023: “A Bibliometric Analysis of Research at the Nexus of Climate Change, Human Mobility, and Human Rights”. The Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Norway is an independent development research institute that “address[es] issues that shape global developments and generate knowledge that can be used to fight poverty, advance human rights, and promote sustainable social development”.

The Danish Institute for Human Rights follows a “human rights-based approach (HRBA)” incorporating “international human rights standards into development work”. It released its 2022 annual report on “Promoting and Protecting Human Rights”.

The review group’s guidelines as set by Guterres are:

  1. To identify the mechanisms and procedures that the Agency [UNRWA] currently has in place to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations or information indicating that the principle may have been breached;
  2. To ascertain how those mechanisms and procedures have, or have not, been implemented in practice ... ;
  3. To assess the adequacy of those mechanisms and procedures and whether they are fit for purpose ... ; and
  4. To make recommendations for the improvement and strengthening, if necessary, of the mechanisms and procedures that are currently in place or for the creation of new and alternative mechanisms and procedures that would be better fit for purpose.

The U.S. government welcomed both investigations:

We welcome the decision to conduct such an investigation and Secretary General Guterres’ pledge to take decisive action to respond, should the allegations prove accurate. We also welcome the UN’s announcement of a “comprehensive and independent” review of UNRWA.

What’s Next?

There have been calls for UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini to resign. But as he told reporters in Brussels following a meeting of EU foreign ministers, he has no intention of resigning. On March 18, he shared on social media that the Israeli authorities had denied him entry to Gaza that day.

Funding to UNRWA will likely resume as normal as most donors deem it “indispensable”. On March 15, the Australian government announced it was lifting their funding pause, explaining that: “Only UNRWA has the infrastructure to receive and distribute aid on the scale needed right now in Gaza.” Australia’s decision is in line with similar steps taken by Canada, Sweden, and the EU. More countries are likely to follow suit.

The Biden administration has taken several measures to allow aid to reach Gaza. It is diverting its funding to other UN organizations (such as WFP and UNICEF) and NGOs who are assisting Palestinian refugees. It is creating other avenues via air and sea to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Since March 2, U.S. airplanes have dropped in Gaza “more than 315,000 meals, more than 140,000 bottles of water, and more than 5 tons of items such as rice, flour, pasta, and canned food”. These airdrops are expected to continue. The Biden administration is also looking into shipping aid to Gaza by sea from Cyprus. A possible maritime corridor to Gaza is being discussed with Cyprus authorities.

On the internal front, this administration is offering additional protection to Palestinians who are on U.S. soil. As my colleague Elizabeth Jacobs recently explained, President Biden ordered that certain Palestinians who are currently here be granted deferred enforced departure (DED), which means they are protected from removal from the United States and are eligible for work authorization. Not being able to return to Gaza is obvious, but how are Palestinians unsafe in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria?

The results of the several “independent” investigations into UNRWA (internal and external) will soon be out. Measures, guidelines, and reforms will be announced; and, as a result, funding and operations will resume as normal. But what will not change is UNRWA’s own leadership culture and staff mindset.

UNRWA staff live in a closed social setting where biases and beliefs are easily transmissible, if not impossible to resist. That these employees have some type of sympathy or adherence to Hamas should surprise no one. No investigation (whether internal or external) and no number of measures are likely to change that.