This term refers to a subsidiary organ of the UN that assists Palestinian refugees and displaced Persons.


The term United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) refers to a subsidiary organ of the United Nations that assists Palestinian Refugees and Displaced Persons.


In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Palestinians who lost their homes were dispersed among Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. In an attempt to provide temporary relief to these Palestinian Refugees (hereafter Refugees) the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 302 (12/49) which established UNRWA.1

UNRWA is financed almost entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and the European Union, which account for 93 percent of its income.2 Five percent of income is from other United Nations bodies.3

Areas of Operation

UNRWA's coverage extends to registered Refugees residing in its areas of operation within the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as the Host Countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.4 (See Map of the Palestinian People)

The Agency operates in fifty-nine recognized camps5 for Refugees and Displaced Persons, as well as within areas containing high concentrations of Refugees (such as Yarmouk near Damascus).

Definition of a Refugee6

UNRWA defines a Palestinian Refugee as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict… a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948."

UNRWA distinguished between several groups and categories of Palestinian population:

  1. Registered Refugees – 1948 Refugees and their descendants registered with UNRWA; (See Table A. below)
  2. Unregistered Refugees – 1948 Refugees and their descendants who are not registered with UNRWA7;
  3. Displaced Persons – Category of Palestinians who lost their homes and had to leave Israel as a result of the Six Day war (6/67), and their descendants;
  4. Internally Displaced Persons – Palestinians displaced within Israel.

It is important to note that the universal definition of a refugee, which is stated in the Geneva Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees (4/54, 10/67), does not bestow refugee status to the descendents of a refugee.

However, Palestinian Refugees are excluded from this constraint by Article 1-D, a provision added to the Convention by Arab states.8 Through this provision the definition of a refugee does not apply to refugees under the care of a UN agency other than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), i.e. it does not apply to Palestinians because they are under the care of UNRWA and not UNHCR. 9

UN Mandate

UNGAR 302, paragraph 7, laid out the following two duties for the Agency:

  1. "To carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programmes as recommended by the Economic Survey Mission"10;
  2. "To consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available."

Since UNRWA's founding, the UN General Assembly has renewed its mandate approximately every three years. Its most recent mandate extension was set until 30/6/08.

Current Role

According a World Bank assessment (10/04), UNRWA provides nearly one-third of the basic education, health, relief and social services to the nearly 1.6 million registered refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is the second largest service provider in these two areas after the "Palestinian Authority".11

The following are some of the relief and field works services that UNRWA performs12:

  1. Educational services – general, higher, vocational, technical and teacher;
  2. Health services – disease prevention and treatment, health protection and promotion;
  3. Basic relief and social services – poverty alleviation and improving capacity for self-reliance.

UNRWA and the Israel-Palestinian Political Process

Old Mindset – The 1978 Camp David Accords and the Oslo Process were predicated on the Package-Approach mindset, according to which, one comprehensive agreement resolves all Outstanding Issues and sets the stage for relations between Israel and the future Palestinian state. Thus, the future of UNRWA would be decided upon the conclusion of a Permanent Status Agreement, which inter alia resolves the issue of Palestinian Refugees.

Thus neither agreement itself dealt with the future prospects of UNRWA once a final settlement occurs.

New Mindset – The recent Roadmap provides a new phasing approach to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. According to which, it will be possible to fragment a Permanent Status Agreement into a number of smaller agreements between Israel and the Palestinian State with Provisional Borders, and to dilute the Outstanding Issues, among those, the refugees.

In light of this New Mindset, the following questions arise in the aftermath of Disengagement:

  1. Will UNRWA's mandate change in the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the Disengagement Plan? Thus far, UNRWA seems to be expanding its relief and works projects in the Gaza Strip post-Disengagement.13
  2. Will the scope of UNRWA's mandate affect the status of Refugees in Gaza?
  3. Will the status of Refugees in post-Disengagement Gaza set a precedent for the existing of Palestinian Refugees in a future Palestinian State? 14

For Table A: UNRWA Registered Refugees as of 30/06/05, Click here.

1 UNGAR 302 and UNRWA's establishment were continuations of the UN Refugee relief effort, which began under UNGAR 212 (11/48) and UNGAR 194 (12/48).
2 The Agency’s largest donors in 2004 were the United States, the European Commission and some of the member states of the European Union. Donor countries continue to maintain their financial support to UNRWA at a time when they are reducing their support to other UN agencies and emergencies around the world.
3 In 2005 the UN General Assembly approved a 339.3 million US$ cash budget for UNRWA.
4 UNRWA’s assistance has sometimes been extended to persons who do not fall within the definition of Palestinian Refugees. When the first Palestinian Intifada broke out (12/87), UNRWA provided emergency assistance to non-refugees living in the West bank and Gaza.
5 UNRWA defines a refugee camp as "a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government for accommodating Palestine refugees and for setting up facilities to cater to their needs."
6 For further information see the UN website.
7 UNRWA's definition of refugees explicitly states that the refugees must have lost both home and means of livelihood to be eligible for registration with UNRWA. In addition, there were some Palestinians who were too proud to register themselves as Refugees.
9 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (4/54), Article 1-D
10 The Economic Survey Mission was established (9/49), to examine the economies of the Host Countries and to recommend projects to improve the situation of the Refugees.
11 "Four Years – Intifada, Closures, and Palestinian Economic Crisis: An Assessment", World Bank, 10/04
12 United Nations Secretary-General's bulletin regarding Organization of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (2/00).
13 Guttman, Jerusalem Post, 9/14/05
14 See: Point of View: The Disengagement – Opportunity to Dilute the Refugee Problem.