UNRWA and Extremism: Frequently Asked Questions

March 22, 2024

What is UNRWA?

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides humanitarian services to Palestinians that the United Nations defines as refugees. These services include, but are not limited to: Education, health care, social services, infrastructure (including refugee camps), microfinance, and emergency response.

When was UNRWA established?

The United Nations General Assembly created UNRWA via Resolution 302 (IV) in December 1949. UNRWA began operating on May 1, 1950.

Why do Palestinian refugees fall under the jurisdiction of UNRWA instead of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)?

UNRWA and UNHCR were both created by the UN General Assembly in 1949. Some Arab governments objected to giving UNHCR jurisdiction over Palestinian refugees, as Emma Colbran wrote for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “due to the belief that would diminish the importance and attention to their plight and the prospect of returning to their homes.”

How do UNHCR and UNRWA differ?

UNHCR advocates for the human rights of refugees and seeks to find solutions to refugee crises by helping repatriate refugees to their respective countries of origin, integrate refugees into the countries in which they find asylum, or resettle refugees in other countries. UNRWA only provides works and services to refugees and does not attempt to integrate or resettle them. UN officials attempted to provide the options of reintegration or resettlement to Palestinian refugees in the 1950s, but backed down due to strong opposition from some Arab governments.

Who heads UNRWA?

UNRWA’s commissioner-general is Philippe Lazzarini, who has served since April 1, 2020.

Where does UNRWA operate?

UNRWA operates in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Who are UNRWA’s employees?

 Almost all of UNRWA’s roughly 28,000 employees are themselves Palestinian refugees as defined by UNRWA.

Were UNRWA personnel involved in the October 7, 2023, attacks on Israel?

In January 2024, the Israeli government provided its American counterpart with a dossier of evidence implicating several UNRWA employees in the October 7 attacks.

 According to that evidence, 12 UNRWA staff were directly involved in the attacks, including six who went into Israel that day. The 12 are: 

  • Ali Isa Hamuda Matar, a teacher and Hamas platoon commander; 
  • Abd Al-Rahman Atiya Salem Abu Awad, a deputy school principal and Hamas platoon commander; 
  • Baker Mahmoud Abdallah Darwish, a school counselor and Hamas military intelligence operative; 
  • Ghassan Nabil Mohammad Sh’hadda El Jabari, a health-center clerk and Hamas operative; 
  • Shadi Mohammad Jamal Razak Darabiah, a school attendant and Hamas operative; 
  • Ala Abd Al-Hamid Qassem Jouda, a teacher and Hamas company commander; 
  • Ibrahim Atiya Mohammad Abu Ghafra, an elementary-school teacher and Hamas cell commander; 
  • Mohammad Tawfiq Ibrahim El Ghafari, a teacher and Hamas squad commander; 
  • Faisal Ali Mussalem Al-Naami, a social worker and Hamas operative; 
  • Rami Mohammad Ramadan Sabbah, a teacher who served in a logistics position for Hamas; 
  • Mohammad Nasser al-Din Mohammad Abu Naama, a clerk and Hamas member; and 
  • Mousa Subhi Musa El Qidra, a school counselor and assistant to a Hamas brigade commander. 

Naami, according to closed-circuit video, drove away from an Israeli kibbutz with the body of a man who had been shot. Sabbah allegedly was “involved in receiving and holding hostages.” Qidra allegedly aided his son in taking a woman hostage. 

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on February 16, 2024, that in addition to the aforementioned 12, Israel has “significant indications based on intelligence that over 30 UNRWA workers participated in the massacre, facilitated the taking of hostages, looted and stole from Israeli communities, and more.”

Is the Israeli government’s evidence for UNRWA staff involvement in terrorism credible

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the evidence Israel provided is “highly, highly credible.”  UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the information from Israel as “credible” in justifying UNRWA’s decision to terminate nine of the 12 employees named in the dossier (two others are reportedly dead).

Are merely a few ‘bad apples’ at UNRWA involved in terrorism? Is this a one-off? 

No. A significant percentage of UNRWA staffers are affiliated with terrorist organizations, and this problem goes back decades. 

Israel’s January dossier indicates that UNRWA employees are more radicalized than the population of the Gaza Strip. According to the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed the dossier, it says that 23 percent of male UNRWA employees in Gaza have ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), compared to 15 percent of male Gazans as a whole. The Journal also reported that the dossier claims that 10 percent of UNRWA staff in Gaza are real terrorist “operatives.” However, CBS News reported that the dossier stated that no fewer than 190 UNRWA employees were operatives for Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on February 16, 2024, that 1,468 UNRWA employees are “known to be active in Hamas and PIJ,” 185 are actively involved in Hamas’s military branches, and 51 are actively involved in PIJ’s military branch. 

In 2004, UNRWA’s then–commissioner general, Peter Hansen, said, “Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime.”

What are other examples of UNRWA employees’ involvement in or support for terrorism? 

Other examples include: 

  • Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi (deceased), an UNRWA clinic physician, carried out a suicide bombing that killed seven Americans and one Jordanian at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan in 2009. 
  • Said Siam (deceased), an UNRWA schoolteacher in Gaza, served as interior minister for Hamas in the Strip. 
  • Awad al-Qiq (deceased), an UNRWA school headmaster in Gaza, was a rocket-builder for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 
  • Nahd Atallah, an UNRWA staffer in Gaza, was arrested by the Israeli authorities for using his agency car to transport members of the “Popular Resistance Committees,” a militant group within Fatah, to conduct attacks against Israeli soldiers. He was convicted by an Israeli military court and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. 
  • Nidal Abd al-Fattah Abdallah Nazzal, an UNRWA ambulance driver, was arrested by the Israeli authorities in 2001 and confessed to delivering arms and bombs and conveying messages between various Hamas headquarters. 
  • Suheil al-Hindi, an UNRWA schoolteacher in Gaza, praised suicide bombings while at an agency school. The UNRWA union Hindi worked for promoted him instead of firing him, and he was later elected to chair the UNRWA staff union in Gaza. In 2011, UNRWA temporarily suspended Hindi after he participated in events with officials of Hamas. Hindi finally resigned in 2017 after the Israeli authorities revealed that he had been elected to Hamas’s politburo. 
  • Muhammad al-Jamassi, an UNRWA engineer who oversaw all of the agency’s infrastructure projects in central Gaza, served in a number of positions in Hamas since 2007. He was elected to UNRWA’s politburo in 2017. 
  • Riad Mustafa Nimr (a.k.a. Abu Hadi), an UNRWA schoolteacher in Lebanon who publicly supported a massacre by terrorists at a synagogue in Jerusalem and posted on Facebook a video of the funeral of a terrorist, calling him a pure soul. UNRWA suspended Nimr, only to later reinstate him under pressure from Palestinian groups—including terrorist organizations. 

In 2021, the Geneva-based non-governmental organization UN Watch published a report revealing that 22 other UNRWA employees had publicly propagated terrorist and anti-Semitic content. Further, a November 2023 report by the nonprofit Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) claimed that 14 UNRWA staffers or institutions, including teachers and an elementary school, posted pro-terrorism and anti-Semitic content on social media.

Do UNRWA schools teach extremism? 

Yes. UNRWA schools use the curricula of their host governments, while “working to enrich the host country curricula in each of its fields of operations to ensure that the curricula taught in UNRWA schools reflect its educational approach, including critical thinking.” Many host-government curricula—such as the Palestinian Authority’s, which is used in UNRWA schools in the West Bank and Gaza—include extensive anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-peace, and pro-terrorism content. 

A March 2023 report by the nonprofits UN Watch and IMPACT-se concluded that UNRWA-created educational materials include “content glorifying terrorism, inciting violence and promoting antisemitism.” This content, according to the report, includes: 

  • “teaching students to admire the terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, the infamous terrorist who participated in the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre”; 
  • “encouraging martyrdom by teaching students that it is laudable to sacrifice oneself for Palestine”; 
  • “demonizing Israel as a thieving destroyer of Palestinian history, and Israeli soldiers as callous killers”; 
  • “denying the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel by repeatedly teaching that ‘Palestine’ includes all Israeli territory”; and 
  • “spreading modern-day antisemitic libels about Israel causing cancer among Palestinians.” 

Further, according to both the aforementioned report and a November 2023 report by IMPACT-se, UNRWA schoolteachers have repeatedly posted anti-Semitic, pro-terrorism content on social media in the wake of the October 7 attacks, including statements supporting the attacks. For example, the official Facebook page of UNRWA’s Nablus Elementary School for Boys posted videos of students pleading for victory for terrorists.

Have terrorists used UNRWA’s infrastructure and supplies? 

Yes. Terrorist compounds, tunnels, rockets, and bombs have been found in and underneath UNRWA facilities, including schools and medical clinics. Rockets found in one UNRWA school in 2014 were returned to Hamas. Terrorists have fired rockets and firearms on the grounds of UNRWA facilities, including schools. Hamas also reportedly steals UNRWA food, fuel, and medical equipment. Further, bags of UNRWA aid were found in Hamas tunnels in Gaza.

Does Hamas wield power in the UNRWA staff union in Gaza? 

Yes. Hamas-affiliated candidates repeatedly won elections for the UNRWA staff union in Gaza.

Does UNRWA vet its personnel for terrorist affiliations? 

Yes and no. UNRWA checks the names of its staff against the United Nations Security Council’s list of sanctioned persons and entities related to al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, UNRWA does not vet its personnel for ties to Palestinian terrorist groups, like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. UNRWA does claim to submit lists of its staff to the governments of Israel and Jordan, as well as to the Palestinian Authority.

Does U.S. law place terrorism-related conditions on funding for UNRWA? 

Yes. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 states: “No contributions by the United States shall be made to [UNRWA] except on the condition that [UNRWA] take all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”

Can other agencies do the work UNRWA currently does for Palestinians? 

Yes. For example, the World Food Program can distribute food to the Palestinians, and has begun doing so and fundraising for that purpose. Governments in UNRWA’s areas of operation, UNICEF, and/or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can provide health care and education. Any number of organizations can offer microfinance.

For more information about UNRWA, see this op-ed by CEP CEO Amb. Mark Wallace and Senior Director Hans-Jakob Schindler.

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