What is UNRWA, the U.N. agency in Gaza struggling to help Palestinians?

One of the UNRWA schools housing displaced people in Gaza on Oct. 8. (Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post)

Amid a spiraling crisis in Gaza, where deadly Israeli strikes have forced more than 1 million residents from their homes, one key U.N. agency in the enclave has been working — and now struggling — to protect and support civilians.

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, warned that it is no longer able to provide humanitarian assistance in Gaza. “We are on the verge of collapse,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said Sunday.

“Gaza is being strangled and it seems that the world right now has lost its humanity,” the agency’s commissioner general said. The Israeli siegeof the enclave has sapped its essential resources, Lazzarini said, adding that “not one drop of water, not one grain of wheat, not a liter of fuel” has been allowed into the Gaza Strip for more than a week. Without those supplies, the agency cannot continue its operations, he said.

Almost 2,700 people have been killed in Gaza, and about 9,600 have been injured in Israeli strikes, following the deadly Oct. 7 rampage by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people in Israel. In Gaza, nearly a million have been displaced — with 400,000 sheltering in overwhelmed and ill-equipped UNRWA school buildings, the agency said.

Here is what you should know about the U.N. agency vital to Gaza:

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What is UNRWA?

Officially titled the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA was established in 1949 by a U.N. resolution to carry out direct relief for Palestinian refugees following the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

The agency is unique “in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees,” it notes on its website.

It provides education, health care, social services and other humanitarian aid to “registered” Palestinian refugees. It also runs schools for more than half a million students.

The agency has specific eligibility guidelines for who can register: A person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

The descendants of male Palestinian refugees are also eligible, according to the agency’s website, which says about 5.9 million Palestinians are eligible for its services. UNRWA aid and services are available in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon. There are about 2 million people in the Gaza Strip and 3 million in the West Bank, according to a 2022 U.S. estimate.

Most of the funding for UNRWA comes from “voluntary contributions” from U.N. member states, with a small portion of its financing coming from the U.N.’s regular budget. Its mandate has been repeatedly renewed “in the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem,” it says. The U.N. renewed the mandate in December until June 2026.

Some 1.7 million people received lifesaving humanitarian assistance in 2021, the agency said.

Where are UNRWA’s schools?

UNRWA operates 706 schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Around 543,000 Palestinian refugee children were enrolled in UNRWA schools for the 2021-22 year.

The U.N. schools provide Palestinian refugees with free basic education that follows the host authorities’ curriculums and textbooks supplemented with UNRWA-materials on human rights, the agency sayson its website.

The schools aim to ensure students become “confident, innovative, questioning, thoughtful, and open-minded, to uphold human values and tolerance, proud of their Palestinian identity and contributing positively to the development of society and the global community,” the agency says.

The schools also provide mental health and psychosocial support to students in Gaza who are “who are directly exposed to life atrocities” in the area, it said.

Since the conflict broke out, at least 400,000 displaced people in Gaza are now sheltering in UNRWA schools and buildings, Lazzarini said in a statement Sunday, adding that the buildings are not equipped as emergency shelters. “We have reports in our logistics base, for example, where hundreds of people are just sharing one toilet,” he said.

On Oct. 8, the UNRWA reported that one of its schools sheltering displaced families was directly hit by a strike.

What is UNRWA saying about the war?

Giving an update to “raise the alarm” on his agency’s inability to fulfill its mission on Sunday, Lazzarini said, “an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding under our eyes.”

The way the siege in Gaza is being imposed by Israel is “nothing else than collective punishment,” he said, criticizing the bombing of civilian infrastructure in densely populated areas and the lack of access to essential resources such as fuel, food, electricity and water in Gaza.

Unless essential supplies can move into Gaza, aid workers will not be able to continue humanitarian operations, Lazzarini said.

The agency said in a Saturday statement that its shelters in Gaza were “no longer safe.” It called on Israel to “protect all civilians sheltering in UNRWA premises across the Gaza Strip,” including in northern Gaza, where Israel’s military has told more than a million Palestinians to evacuate south — though doing so has proved difficult and dangerous for many.

UNRWA said that many Gazans “will not be able to flee the area,” particularly women, children, and the elderly and disabled. “They have no choice and must be protected at all times,” it added.

“Wars have rules,” the agency said. “Civilians, hospitals, schools, clinics and United Nations premises cannot be a target.”

Lazzarini said that the agency has lost 14 staff members in the conflict, including teachers, engineers, guards, psychologists, an engineer and a gynecologist. More than 13,000 staff members were displaced, and the team relocated to Rafah, in southern Gaza, after the evacuation directive.

He called for a suspension of hostilities for humanitarian reasons “without any delay” to spare the loss of more lives.

“I beg you, save Gaza. It’s dying. … There are children, elderly and adults for whom I cannot provide,” Rawya Halas, a UNRWA staff member, said in a video released by the agency Sunday. “I am UNRWA. I’m the head of this shelter, and I can’t offer them anything.”


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