The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has become synonymous with the Palestinian refugee plight, yet little is known about its history or the obstacles it faces in carrying out its work.  

UNRWA’s mission is not an easy one. 

It works on dangerous turf, is perpetually under funded and constantly scrutinised for its inability to provide refugees with physical protection. 

Its efforts at assisting Palestinian refugees have been severely hampered since the start of the second Intifada, due to ongoing Israeli military activity.

UNRWA ambulances and employees are constantly held up at checkpoints and its work is not seen as immune from Israeli Army restrictions.

A temporary mission

In 1950, UNRWA was established by the United Nations' General Assembly to carry out direct relief for individuals in Palestine who became refugees as a result of the 1948 war. 

It was initially envisaged as a temporary measure, but its three-year mandate has been continually renewed in the absence of a resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.   

The agency has since adapted its programmes to meet the changing needs of four generations of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.

“In Rafah, our schools are being peppered with gunfire constantly... Students who are traumatised are not such great students anymore”

Paul McCann,
UNRWA 

It is now the main provider of education, health, relief, and social services to 4.1 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian refugees are considered the largest stable refugee population in the world. They make up nearly two-thirds of the Palestinian people and 70% of the Gaza Strip’s population.

Emergency appeal

Because of the overwhelming humanitarian crisis faced by Palestinian refugees during the second Intifada, UNRWA decided to launch an Emergency Appeal Programme. 

The programme works to alleviate the impact of violence, curfews and closures on refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

So far, UNRWA has distributed 1.6 million food parcels, rebuilt shelters for the thousands of refugees whose homes were demolished and provided hundreds of temporary jobs for unemployed breadwinners. 

The main focus of the Emergency Appeal has been Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip and the Jenin camp in the West Bank.

Mounting difficulties

Since the beginning of the second Intifada, however, UNRWA has been faced with mounting financial and operational difficulties.  

According to Paul McCann, UNRWA’s Chief Public Information Officer, the Emergency Appeal is still massively under funded and the agency itself is struggling to make ends meet. 

In the past few months, due to shortage of funds and movement restrictions, there was an overall reduction of 17% in the tonnage of food delivered. 

UNRWA vehicles are regularly
held up at Israeli checkpoints

“We have secured only $40 million out of a total $104 million,” he told Aljazeera.net.

UNRWA faces a bill of $30.5 million for the cost of its re-housing efforts in the Gaza Strip alone.

Moreover, nearly 14,000 refugees have been made homeless in the occupied Palestinian territories since October 2000.

Humanitarian Access

According to McCann, the three greatest operational obstacles during this Intifada have been access and freedom of movement, violence and the risk to UN staff and flouting of UNRWA’s immunities and privileges as a humanitarian organisation.

“The refugees have been plunged into economic problems because of curfews and closures,” said McCann. “That translates itself into two ways - our beneficiary population is weakened and our ability to provide assistance is hampered.”

The Bertini report, filed by the Personal Humanitarian Envoy of the Secretary-General in August 2002, came to a similar conclusion - that a lack of access mobility has created a serious humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza.

A few weeks ago, ambulance driver Ashraf al-Shanti was held up at the Abu Holi checkpoint in the Gaza Strip while attempting to transfer a gunshot wound victim from the Rafah Refugee Camp. 

“We’ve been waiting an hour and a half and can’t get by. We don’t know what to do. The problem is that no one is letting us in or finding a solution for us. If we try to coordinate with the Israelis, it takes hours,” he said.

McCann added: “We regularly face delays on checkpoints. In the West Bank, it’s a bigger problem. Food distribution is held up regularly three to five hours every day.”

UNRWA faces similar obstacles getting into Mawasi, an impoverished town that is completely isolated from the rest of the Gaza strip and under strict Israeli military control.

Not immune

UNRWA's work is fraught with
danger

UN buildings, including schools, have not been spared during this conflict either.

School playgrounds have been used by the Israeli military to hold arrested men and schools themselves have been the frequent target of Israeli gunfire and shelling.

“In Rafah, our schools are being peppered with gunfire constantly,” said McCann. 

A thick steel plate was built on top of the wall of one of the schools located beside an Israeli lookout tower to shield it from gunfire, he said. 

“Students who are traumatised are not such great students anymore.”

McCann says the Israeli military continues to flout their immunity as a UN body while jeopardising staff and refugees alike.

“Our installations are not seen as sacrosanct. Our staff are being held up, abused, and searched,” he said. 

Just last month, an UNRWA hospital in Qalqilia was forcibly raided by the Israelis.  

According to UNRWA’s latest emergency appeal progress report, soldiers ordered staff and patients to sit on the floor with their hands in the air, as they searched the premises room by room. 

The soldiers fired at walls, locked doors and expensive hospital equipment causing thousands of dollars in damage.

According to McCann, a total of nine UN workers have been killed by the Israeli Army during this Intifada, including an ambulance driver in Tul Karem and a Programme Officer in Jenin. 

No protection

This Khan Yunis housing shelter
was built by UNRWA for refugees

Unlike the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, whose mandate includes both protection of refugees and efforts to find permanent solutions for their problems, UNRWA’s mandate is limited to mundane forms of assistance. 

McCann contends, however, that UNRWA has protected Palestinian refugees even though such an obligation is not included in its mandate.

“Our interpretation of the protection mandate is similar to UNHCR. The UNHCR does not have a military force. But what we are both involved in is reporting, observing, and publicising the plight of the refugees.” 

However, individual attempts at providing some protection have been met with deadly force. Last year, Iain Hook, UNRWA’s Programme Officer in Jenin, was killed while trying to provide safe passage out of a UN compound for 40 Palestinian workers. 

According to witnesses, the Israeli Army prohibited a clearly marked UN ambulance from evacuating and transporting him for nearly an hour, during which time he lost a large amount of blood.

UNRWA staff monitor whether all parties involved are observing the privileges and immunities of their installations, staff and vehicles. 

“We continually report to the General Assembly and to UN headquarters, and on almost a daily basis to UN Security Coordination Office. We also write regularly to the Israeli Army,” said McCann.

“Frequently what we receive are commitments to improve and to assist, which are not translated into action on the ground.”