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There have been in recent times increased US attempts to liquidate the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It is considered the main international witness to the Palestine catastrophe since 1948, the Nakbah of the Palestinian refugees, and the first line of defense for their right to return to their homeland from which they had been expelled.

Forecasting the future of these attempts, the first scenario would see UNRWA overcome its present crisis, like it has in many previous occasions. The second scenario would see UNRWA survive but with its role and influence significantly weakened, through the reduction of its revenues and the continuation of the political and media war against it. The third scenario would see the US and Israel, and their allies, succeeding in abolishing UNRWA by changing its mandate specified under Resolution 302, and annexing its functions to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The third scenario appears unlikely at present, while the first scenario is possible but requires concerted efforts by all UNRWA backers, in order to avert the second scenario/outcome.

to the available data, the first scenario is the most likely.

First: UNRWA From Inception to the Verge of Liquidation

Upon the wishes of the UN Mediator in Palestine Count Bernadotte, the UN General Assembly, by resolution 194/1948, established the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). Under paragraph 12 of the same resolution, the Conciliation Commission decided on 23/8/1949 to form the Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East (ESM), or the Clapp mission (after its chairman Gordon Clapp). On the recommendation of the Mission, the General Assembly, in its resolution 302 of 8/12/1949, established the UNRWA. Thus, UNRWA was born as a “humanitarian organization” in the context of a political struggle, following the failure of the Lausanne conference to resolve the refugee crisis.

The current Israeli-American attempts to end UNRWA’s role, either by draining its resources or merging its mandate within the purview of the UNHCR, should be seen in the context of broader schemes aimed at eliminating the Palestine issue, at the heart of which sits the refugee issue and the right of return. These schemes have regional and international contexts and dimensions related to the requirements of the “peace process” and the so called “deal of the century.” At the same time, they have catastrophic ramifications and consequences on each of UNRWA’s operation and services areas.

However, plans for the liquidation of UNRWA’s role are not new, and have existed since the agency’s inception, linked to the political context and the temporary circumstances under which UNRWA was established, on the one hand, and its ambiguous and dual relief and work mandate, on the other.

Here, it is possible to distinguish two main approaches in these plans: an economic and social approach based on interpreting and manipulating UNRWA’s mandate to serve the purpose of liquidation; and second, a political approach of exerting direct and open pressure on the international community to achieve the same goal. In fact, the first approach is essentially a political one. Both approaches cannot be separated from the goal of ending UNRWA services, permanently settling refugees in host countries, and eliminating the right of return.

Second: The Economic and Social Approach

Under the mandate given to UNRWA by the UN General Assembly, the Agency was created “To carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programmes as recommended by the Economic Survey Mission.” The General Assembly entrusted UNRWA with a dual mission, to run relief works and implement works program.

UNRWA’s work in Palestinian refugee relief was essentially seen as a short-term program dictated by sensitive political circumstances. The original concept of UNRWA’s mandate lies in the name of UNRWA itself: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, wherein the works program, which is ultimately intended to re-settle refugees, would eventually replace relief works.

In this regard, shortly after its inception, UNRWA began implementing a Works and Employment Program, in implementation of the ESM’s recommendations. For this purpose, it had conducted preliminary negotiations with host governments to strengthen the economies of these countries and provide job opportunities for refugees at the same time, bringing them to a degree of self-sufficiency that allows them to be removed from relief records. This program included the implementation of the following projects and programs:

• Large Scale Public Works Projects (1950), which was expected to write off more than 100,000 refugees from the relief program by the middle of 1951.

• The Reintegration Program (1951), which adopted a three-year plan aimed at transferring relief management to host governments within a period not later than 1/7/1952,[1] with a gradual reduction of the relief budget.

• Self-Support Projects, which UNRWA adopted since 1950 by providing small loans to help individuals or groups attain self-reliance, in preparation for their integration into the economies of host Arab countries.

• Even the education program, one of UNRWA’s largest and most important programs, was designed by UNRWA from the outset as a supplementary program for economic rehabilitation and integration projects. However, education, as social capital, provided employment opportunities for refugees while maintaining the national identity of the Palestinian people.

Third: Political Approach

Since late 2015 and even before that in the US House Budget Committee in 2013, we have been witnessing a fierce and coordinated Israeli-American campaign against UNRWA at the United Nations, questioning its political and moral justification in order to undermine the agency. The campaign’s claims include: accusations against of UNRWA of being “an obstacle to peace,” by “perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict” and “applying double standards in relation to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees”; and the claim that dedicating a UN agency fully to the Palestinians is “systematic bias by the UN regime against Israel.” The campaign also targeted education curricula adopted by UNRWA for “demonizing Israel.”

The US-Israeli war on UNRWA escalated after Donald Trump announced he would transfer his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and following the General Assembly resolution in December 2017 denouncing Trump’s decision, declaring attempts to alter the city’s status were “null and void.” Responding to the General Assembly resolution, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on 2/1/2018 said that President Trump “doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table.”[2] Following that, Trump wrote on Twitter: “…we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect…but with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”[3]

Despite opposition from many countries to the Trump administration’s position vis-à-vis UNRWA, on various grounds, it is not possible to see the meager results of the Rome Conference on supporting UNRWA, held on 15/3/2018, which was attended by more than 90 countries, in isolation from the fallout of the American position. The Conference produced pledges to raise only $100 million out of the $446 million requested.

Fourth: Prospects and Scenarios

Based on historical experience regarding the international handling of UNRWA crises, and based on various indications available to us to date, there are three possible scenarios regarding the future of the agency, against the back of one of the toughest crises it has faced in its history, according to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl. In our view there are no clear boundaries between the three scenarios, as they could overlap depending on the developments of the crisis.

1. First Scenario

This optimistic scenario assumes that UNRWA would overcome its current funding crisis, based on the following causes and factors:

a. UNRWA is used to coping with funding crises, although the current crisis seems to be the most serious in its history. Here it is worth mentioning the crisis of 2015, which almost forced UNRWA to suspend the academic year.

b. The political and moral support that UNRWA received at the Rome conference despite pressures from the US, and despite the meagre pledges and their ability to plug the financial deficit. This means that the international community is keen to sustain UNRWA’s work, based on the need to maintain stability in the region, in the absence of effective opportunities for a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

c. In January 2018, UNRWA launched the #DignityIsPriceless Global Fundraising Campaign to raise $500 million to provide emergency education, health care, and food assisstance, and aid to refugees in all countries where the agency operates. In addition, UNRWA made an emergency appeal to raise another $800 million to finance its emergency programs in Syria and the territories occupied in 1967, and for Palestinian refugees from Syria residing in Lebanon.

d. UNRWA is urging the Arab countries to increase their support (currently 7.8% of UNRWA’s budget pledged by the Arab League Council in 1987). UNRWA also expects the five BRICS emerging countries (Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) to increase their contribution to the UNRWA budget.

2. Second Scenario

This scenario assumes UNRWA will fail to offset the missing US funding for the agency, with the US and Israel continuing frenzied campaign against UNRWA, with a view to blackmail the Palestinians in the context of the so-called “deal of the century” and the requirements of the peace process. It also assumes that the Palestinians will not return to the negotiating table with Israel under the US-Israeli terms, which do not meet the bare minimum of Palestinian national demands.

Beyond the blackmail of the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table, and regardless of whether it will cave in to the requirements of the peace process, this scenario involves one of two possibilities:

a. At the very least, the US policy of draining UNRWA’s financial resources would continue, complicating the implementation of its mandate regarding assisting Palestinian refugees until they return to their homeland.

b. At most, UNRWA would become paralyzed and its role would be suspended, meeting the same fate as the UNCCP.[4]

The second scenario may pave the way for the third scenario, in terms of changing the “mandate of UNRWA,” which effectively means repealing Resolution 302/1949, which established the agency.

3. Third Scenario

This scenario assumes the US and Israel would successfully alter UNRWA’s “mandate” set out in Resolution 302, by obtaining approval from the UN General Assembly to incorporate this mandate into the mandate of the UNHCR, effectively repealing Resolution 302.

What tempts the US and Israel to pursue this scenario is a precedent in this regard, when they were able in 1991 to repeal the General Assembly Resolution 3379/1975, which “determine(d) that zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” However, there are major obstacles that could hinder this scenario:

a. The refugees themselves are aware of the dangers of the plans to liquidate their cause and are determined to resist them, based on their historical experience in the 1950s and 1960s, during which they managed to frustrate all re-settlement schemes.

b. Abolition of Resolution 3379 was carried out in an optimistic climate that had hopes that
the “peace process” would advance quickly after the Madrid Conference prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords. That atmosphere is very different today, with the Oslo peace process in dire straits as it heads towards total collapse.

c. The debate in the General Assembly has reverted to the political struggle under which UNRWA was created, and the preliminary discussions that approved the 1951 Refugee Convention, the establishment of the UNHCR and the exclusion of Palestinians from its protection. This means the discussion is back to square one, where a majority in the General Assembly oppose the US-Israeli schemes.[5]

Fifth: Weighing the Scenarios

The first scenario appears to be achievable, especially if the parties supporting UNRWA’s continued existence agree to support this option politically and financially. However, the second scenario may achieve some success in light of Palestinian schism, the fragmentation of Arab and Islamic powers, and the existence of conducive environments that allow the Israeli and American parties to put pressure in this direction. The third scenario is very difficult to achieve and remains unlikely in the current circumstances. Only the General Assembly that established UNRWA is authorized to repeal Resolution 302. Also, the United States and Israel are well aware that such a move would be inconsistent with the desires of the majority of States Members of the United Nations, including some of America’s and Israel’s allies for different reasons. However, all of this depends, of course, on the sound management of UNRWA’s crisis by pursuing effective mobilization mechanisms that are up to this serious level of confrontation, in which UNRWA’s survival remains the first line of defense of the right of return.

Sixth: Recommendations and Suggestions

1. The need to deal with the crises of UNRWA by establishing a kind of balance between the political importance of UNRWA and its humanitarian role, regardless of the quality and adequacy of its services.

2. The urgent need to put pressure on the frameworks that shape UNRWA’s policy (General Assembly, Advisory Committee, donor conferences) to develop radical solutions to the chronic deficit in UNRWA’s budget through the allocation of a permanent budget that does not depend on donations and grants, and to activate the proposal of the Secretary-General of the United Nations in this regard (72nd session/2017).

3. The lessons of the UNRWA crisis (2015) should be used to crystallize a long-term, shared Palestinian vision for UNRWA’s policies that respond effectively to the expected crises and would not only be based on reactions and temporary solutions.

4. Promote the concept of community participation adopted by many international organizations, including UNRWA, i.e., effectively involving refugees in their policy-making, program planning and implementation.

5. To develop the messages exchanged between Lebanon and UNRWA (in 1954) to a comprehensive agreement that would regulate UNRWA’s relationship with the Lebanese state, to serve the national interests of Lebanon and Palestinians alike.

[1] It’s worth mentioning that the UNRWA has re-suggested this idea following Oslo Accords, by suggesting harmonization plan between UNRWA’s and the host authorities’ services, under the Peace Implementation Programme (PIP).
[2] Haaretz newspaper, 2/1/2018,
[3] The United States is the largest supporter of UNRWA’s budget. US contribution to UNRWA’s regular budget usually amounts to $300 million out of a total of $1.4 billion. However, based on the aforementioned US positions that have linked continued support to the requirements of the “peace process,” Trump announced on 16/1/2018, that he would freeze $65 million of the $125 million payment due in the first half of 2018.
[4] Since the beginning of 1952, this commission has practically ceased its efforts to find a permanent solution to the refugee issue, in accordance with the provisions of Resolution 194 that established it, however it still formally exists to this day without any effectiveness.
[5] Palestinian refugees fall under the mandate of UNRWA, which distinguishes them from the rest of the world’s refugees who fall under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At the time, the Arab countries concerned refused to include Palestinian refugees in the protection of UNHCR and insisted on the specificity of their situation, on the basis that the right of return guaranteed by resolution 194 had overridden the protection benefits that the Convention and its executive instruments, the Office of the High Commissioner, could provide.

* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Jaber Suleiman for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 12/5/2018