Victims of Hamas sue UNRWA

Victims of the October 7, 2023, attacks by Hamas have sued UNRWA USA, a Delaware non-profit that provides aid for Palestinians in Gaza. The case is one of several involving the war in Gaza, including one filed by residents of Gaza against the Biden administration and one brought by victims of Hamas against the National Students for Justice in Palestine. Like the other suits, the one against UNRWA faces significant legal obstacles and appears to be designed in part to influence public opinion.

UNRWA and Its U.S. Partner

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides aid to Palestinian refugees. Created in 1949 by the UN General Assembly, UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from states and private donors alike. It provides health care, education, emergency services and other assistance to Palestinians. As the primary source of relief in Gaza, and with a budget of around $1.4 billion, UNRWA is an extremely important organization with a real impact on the ground. UNRWA has 13,000 employees in Gaza. UNRWA USA raises money for UNRWA and describes its mission as “lift[ing] up the voices, experiences, and humanity of Palestine refugees to secure American support for resources essential to every human being, for the promise of a better life.”

The connections between UNRWA and Hamas have been the subject of longstanding debate, one that has escalated since the October 7 attacks. For example, Israel has alleged that UNRWA employees actively participated in those Hamas atrocities, leading more than a dozen countries, including the United States, to cut funding to UNRWA in early 2024. In response, UNRWA launched an investigation and fired some employees. The UN also launched an extensive independent investigation which made a variety of suggestions for improved transparency but also noted that Israel has not provided evidence to support its claim that a significant number of the UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations. The European Union and several countries have recently resumed their funding, but the United States has not.

Factual Allegations

The complaint focuses on describing terrorist activities by Hamas before, during, and after the October 7 attacks, and on the relationship between Hamas and UNRWA (not a defendant). Hamas is both a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and the elected government of the people in Gaza. The complaint alleges that UNRWA employs members of Hamas or people with close ties to Hamas; that Hamas has a “strong and direct influence” over UNRWA; that UNRWA schools teach terrorism; that teachers at UNRWA schools celebrated the October 7 attacks; and that UNRWA schools sit atop Hamas tunnels and are used to house weapons.

It also alleges that UNRWA paid its employees in U.S. dollars rather than Israeli shekels, allegedly providing Hamas with financial support. Hamas purportedly runs most of the money changing operations in Gaza and charges a fee from “10% up to 25%.” As a result, a predictable percentage of UNRWA’s payroll went to Hamas. In addition, paying in this way purportedly gave Hamas access to U.S. dollars, which it allegedly used to obtain weapons on the black market and smuggle them into Gaza for “terrorist purposes,” including the October 7 attacks. The complaint refers to a report commissioned by UNRWA warning of the “numerous risks associated with dealing in cash” in Gaza.

Most of the complaint’s specific allegations are against UNRWA, not the actual defendant, UNRWA USA. The complaint does allege that “Defendant UNRWA USA provided direct support for Hamas on October 7, 2023, in the form of financing and personnel, including actual, direct participation in the atrocities of October 7 and continuing participation in the ongoing terrorism and the keeping of hostages since.” The specific factual support in the complaint for these claims include the allegation that one employee of UNRWA is also a consultant for UNRWA USA; that a current UNRWA USA Board Member said in 2006 that she met with Hamas; that the relationship between Hamas and UNRWA was well-known; and that UNRWA USA failed to halt funding to UNRWA in January 2024 when the U.S. government did so. There are no allegations, however, that any funds or other support provided by UNRWA USA were directed to Hamas. Until January 2024, UNRWA USA engaged in the same conduct as the U.S. government: providing general financial assistance to UNRWA for humanitarian purposes.

Legal Hurdles

The complaint includes counts for violations of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) and the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

The Alien Tort Statute (28 U.S.C. § 1350) claim, brought by the Israeli plaintiffs, is a non-starter. It alleges that the defendants engaged in terrorism financing in violation of international law. The ATS allows claims for violations of a “treaty of the United States.” Plaintiffs rely on that language and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (Convention), which prohibits the collection and distribution of funds with the knowledge that they will be used to carry out acts of terrorism. The United States is a party to the Convention, but the Convention is not self-executing and accordingly cannot provide the basis for an ATS claim. As the Supreme Court held in Jesner v. Arab Bank (2017), the Convention does not permit common-law actions under the ATS absent further congressional authorization. The plaintiffs could have alleged that terrorism financing violates customary international law and cited the Convention as support for that claim. But they did not make that claim, even though the complaint does allege that countries follow the Convention out of a sense of “legal obligation” – a phrase that refers to one of the elements of customary international law. Even had they alleged a violation of customary international law, that claim may still have failed. Only very well-established customary international law norms that enjoy a high level of acceptance can provide the basis for an ATS claim. It is unclear that aiding and abetting terrorism through financial support to an intermediary meets that standard.

The ATA claims, brought by U.S. plaintiffs, may also fail to survive a motion to dismiss. The allegations that UNRWA USA provided support for the attacks of October 7 could, if proven, result in liability under the ATA. But these are legal conclusions, not entitled to a presumption of truth when assessing the sufficiency of a complaint. The issue is thus whether the complaint adequately alleges specific facts that make plausible the legal claim that the defendants aided and abetted or conspired to commit an act of international terrorism, both of which are actionable under the ATA (28 U.S.C. 2333 (d)(2)). The Supreme Court has described this part of the ATA as resting “on the same conceptual core that has animated aiding-and-abetting liability for centuries: that the defendant consciously and culpably ‘participate[d]’ in a wrongful act so as to help ‘make it succeed. [citation omitted].” The Court acknowledged potential “daylight between the rules for aiding and abetting in criminal and tort law” but reasoned that the statute “refers to a conscious, voluntary, and culpable participation in another’s wrongdoing.” This seems like a challenging test for the plaintiffs’ allegations in this case, which describes only general financial support by UNRWA USA to UNRWA, which in turn allegedly used funds in ways that provided some forms of support for Hamas.


The global public controversy around funding for UNRWA and its alleged ties to terrorist attacks provides an important backdrop for the lawsuit against UNRWA USA. Parts of the complaint are certain to fail; others face very significant hurdles. But the suit does highlight the terrible actions by Hamas and it does allege significant connections between UNRWA and Hamas. Even if these allegations are not enough to impose liability on UNRWA USA, they may have some effect on public opinion about both UNRWA and UNRWA USA – a victory with which plaintiffs and their lawyers may be content.