What Is UNRWA, Aid Agency With Workers Accused of Involvement in Oct. 7 Attack?


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The U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians has been a vital lifeline in the Gaza Strip for generations — and it was a point of contention with Israel long before some of the agency’s employees were accused of involvement in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

The allegation, made by Israel, is a serious blow to the reputation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, generally known as UNRWA. The claim was acted on by both the United Nations, which said on Friday that it had fired the accused workers and was investigating, and the United States, which said it was suspending some funding for the agency.

Here’s a closer look at the organization and its work.

UNRWA provides an array of social services for people registered as Palestinian refugees in the wars surrounding the formation of Israel, and for their descendants in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The agency looms especially large in Gaza, where most of the population of more than two million people are registered as refugees. Gaza has been under a longstanding Israeli blockade, and Hamas — considered a terrorist group by much of the world — wields control. No nation’s government takes even partial responsibility for governing the territory, and the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited powers in the West Bank, was effectively expelled from Gaza in a 2007 power struggle with Hamas.

UNRWA builds and operates schools, medical clinics, shelters and playgrounds throughout the territory. It provides food, housing assistance and emergency loans and even oversees some garbage collection. It is one of the largest employers in Gaza, with 13,000 workers, most of them Palestinian, a rarity in an enclave where almost half of adults are unemployed.

“Essentially, for the last few decades we have been operating a parallel government in Gaza,” Hector Sharp, the head of the agency’s legal office, said in an October interview.

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What Is UNRWA, Aid Agency With Workers Accused of Involvement in Oct. 7 Attack?

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