UNRWA in Palestine : Anyone who travels around Palestine for any prolonged period of time will likely notice the United Nations presence in the country. On Ein Sarah Street, there is a warehouse of supplies belonging to the UNRWA. What is the UNRWA? What is the UN doing in Palestine? In this article, we’ll attempt to explain these questions to newcomers to Palestine.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes and villages in what became the State of Israel. The resulting humanitarian crisis prompted the United Nations, in December of 1949, to create the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Originally, the UNRWA provided direct humanitarian aid, and created public works projects to create jobs, for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees of the 1948 war. In 1952 however, the Israeli government took over responsibility for Jewish refugees of the war.
Today, because the UNRWA allows refugee status to be inherited, the agency cares for over 5 million registered refugees. There are currently 59 refugee camps which the UNRWA provides aid to in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Originally, these refugee camps were simply a collection of tents, however, over the past 70 years, the camps have developed into a crowded series of buildings. Most of the 30,000 people who work for the UNRWA are local Palestinians, meaning the UNRWA is also a huge source of employment for the Palestinian people.
Today, the UNRWA is an important source of aid for Palestinians living in refugee camps. Recently, volunteers at the Excellence Center visited Fawwar Refugee Camp outside of Hebron. They learned that the UNRWA runs health clinics for residents of the camp, as well as schools for local children. The UNRWA’s annual budget is over US$1 billion, meaning per capita, the West Bank and Gaza receive more than twice the aid as the next recipient. Even so, residents of Fawwar complain that classrooms are overcrowded and clinics lack all but basic supplies and can only provide basic services.
One criticism of the UNRWA is that rather than promote the creation of Palestinian institutions, it has fostered a culture of dependency on the agency and international aid. Despite no progress being made in obtaining the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes in Israel, Palestinian refugees are usually unable to obtain citizenship in neighboring countries, like Lebanon and Syria, where they have settled and instead are kept separated in refugee camps.
With dozens of UNRWA registered refugee camps in the West Bank, and UNRWA staff operating throughout Hebron, volunteers and students at the Excellence Center are sure to come into contact with the United Nations during their stay. As an important source of aid, employment, and support, the United Nations is a vital fixture of Palestinian society.