Image of Gaza via UNRWA, uncredited

Can UNRWA Survive?

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, better known as UNRWA, was established in 1949 to support Palestinians displaced during the first Arab-Israeli war. Today, it provides services and humanitarian relief to nearly 6 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and of course Gaza.

There has always been some tension between Israel and UNRWA, but since the October 7th attacks and the Israel war in Gaza, Israeli leaders have sought to dismantle UNRWA all together. Following Israeli accusations that 12 out of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza took part in the October 7 attacks, the United States suspended funding for UNRWA and many other key donors followed suit. This funding suspension took place even as UNRWA’s humanitarian relief networks in Gaza are widely regarded as irreplaceable. To the extent that aid is reaching besieged populations in Gaza, it is UNRWA facilitating the deliveries.

My interview guest today Jonathan Lincoln is a former United Nations official who served as a Senior Coordination Officer at the Jerusalem office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, where he worked on aid in the West Bank and Gaza. He is now the interim Director of the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He recently wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs about both the necessity of UNRWA and the need for reforming the agency. In our conversation, Jonathan Lincoln explains the intense political and financial pressure facing UNRWA today, and I ask whether or not UNRWA can withstand these pressures and survive the fallout from the war in Gaza?

Our conversation is freely available across all podcast platforms. The full transcript of the interview is available here.

Here is an edited excerpt.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Jonathan, to kick off, can you explain the circumstances in which UNRWA was first created, and what makes it so particularly anomalous within the UN system?

Jonathan Lincoln: So, UNRWA’s created officially at the end of 1949 by the UN General Assembly, and it’s created in the context of the refugee crisis that’s a result of the first Arab-Israeli war. The numbers vary, but it’s some 700,000 to 750,000 displaced, potentially even more. Palestinians who were forced to flee as a result of the war found themselves in a number of different areas crossing the border into Lebanon, into Syria, into Jordan — which included the West Bank at that time, and, of course, the Gaza Strip, which was ruled by Egypt up until 1967.

As part of the response to this crisis, the United Nations basically consolidates a number of the different humanitarian interventions that it had been supporting on the ground in order to address the really dire conditions that these people had been facing.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, the United Nations supports humanitarian relief and development work around the world. What makes UNRWA’s work particularly unique and different in the context of other UN operations today?

Jonathan Lincoln: Elements of the mandate haven’t changed that much since the initial creation of UNRWA at the end of 1945. The linkage of UNRWA and UNRWA services to the continuation of this conflict — that they are going to provide services to this population until there is a solution to the conflict — creates an entirely unique context for the provision of humanitarian and then later development services. (Other UN agencies, UNHCR included, generally speaking, are providing services based pretty much solely on need.)

And then there’s also another very important distinction in the sense that UNRWA actually takes on state-like services. UNRWA in its five areas of operations, which are Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, actually provides direct services. So, it has this massive ranks of staff that consists of some 30,000 — 13,000 alone in Gaza, by far the largest operation— where they are not just supporting local schools, they are the schools, they are the teachers, engineers, etc. Also with regard to basic health services and health clinics, the doctors themselves are UNRWA staff. It’s not like the way that the World Health Organization might work in terms of deploying a group of doctors to support either a particular hospital or clinic or a ministry of health most often.

So, in this sense, it’s unique in terms of its political symbolism, but it’s also unique in terms of its delivery of services.