When St. George, Utah, native Bob Hopkins looks from his office tower, it's not the Virgin River that he sees.

It's the Danube.Hopkins, an employee of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency since 1970, moved to the UNRWA international headquarters in Vienna in July of this year after spending five years years as the head of the agency's operations in the West Bank.

UNRWA was created in 1949 as a temporary agency - and charged with providing health, education and relief and social services to Palestinians who lost their homes after the 1948 war.

Though "temporary" has lasted 42 years, Hopkins still believes that the agency's goal is to "take the flag down and go home."

But until they take down the flag, UNRWA is in sort of a no-man's land in the battle between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israelis, in general, don't like the idea of a U.N. agency helping the proverbial thorn in their side. And Palestinians, feeling helpless against the Israelis, are sometimes disgusted that UNRWA can't do more.

Yet Israelis know that without UNRWA, their government would have to provide those services to the refugees. And Palestinians know that without UNRWA, they'd be in even worse shape.

"But until there's a solution, I think it's important for the U.N. flag to be there to show the interest of the international community," Hopkins said.

So UNRWA officials continue to walk a tightrope.

But Hopkins says it isn't all that bad.

As UNRWA's director of operations, Hopkins was on the front lines of the agency's efforts. Most U.N.-created bodies are advisory, but UNRWA is operational, Hopkins said. "We provide services to people."

But, because of the turmoil, the job is also frustrating.

"It's very satisfying to go into the schools and see the children learning - and to know they were scoring better on their exams than the indigenous population.

"But you sometimes wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a locomotive coming your way," he said.

UNRWA's challenge is enormous.

In providing services to as many as 2.3 million refugees in more than 60 camps scattered across five service areas - the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria - the agency has almost become the "city government" for the refugees.

But UNRWA personnel are quick to point out that these are not UNRWA's camps; UNRWA provides only education, medical and social services to the camp's residents.

But not even the residents seem to completely understand that.

During visits to several camps, I was privy to exchanges between the camp services officer and unhappy residents.

In a camp near Nablus in the West Bank, we had just sat down in the camp office when we were interrupted by an irate resident. The official excused himself, went out and I immediately heard shouting, in Arabic, outside.

The public information officer with me explained that a camp resident was complaining because his septic tank had not been pumped, and the pump truck had left. The official had no control over the problem but like the non-owner apartment manager, ended up taking the brunt of the problem.

And though UNRWA officials try to remain non-political, doing so is increasingly difficult in an increasingly political situation.

How, for example, should an UNRWA doctor - whose job is to provide medical care and not take sides - respond to a Palestinian youth who has been shot by Israeli soldiers? From a medical standpoint, there is no question - he attends to the patient.

But by binding the wounds, Israelis ask, is he encouraging others to civil disobedience?

With the now 3-year-old intifada increasing tension in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, UNRWA has moved a little more into the political arena by assigning non-Palestinian employees to monitor potential trouble spots.

Called refugee affairs officers, the individuals are supposed to provide "some form of passive protection," said Maher Nasser, UNRWA public information officer in the West Bank.

Originally, it was thought that the presence of a third party could help mitigate tension and trouble. And to some extent, it has worked.

But when I visited the Vienna office, UNRWA was working on a press release about a refugee affairs officer who had been hit - apparently deliberately - by a concrete block thrown by an Israeli soldier.

From a non-political standpoint, one would be hard-pressed to find fault with UNRWA's operations. Under often trying and always difficult circumstances, UNRWA personnel deliver education, health and social services to an undoubtedly needy population.

During several tours of UNRWA schools and junior colleges, health clinics, women's centers, and while observing a host of other programs, I was invariably impressed with the commitment of those involved to what they were doing.

Schoolchildren were my favorite. Though the facilities were less-than-adequate, the enthusiasm was unmatched. I've never seen such eager, attentive faces.

During a visit to a UNRWA-sponsored junior college, I asked a couple of students about their goals.

"We want to be educated people so we can understand the world around us," said Mays Abu Samra.

Bassam Saleh said he wants to be a teacher because he "hopes to help children."

Despite such laudable work, UNWRA is far from uncontroversial.

In fact, one Israeli told me that UNRWA is one of the causes of the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

UNRWA'S "work is humanitarian, and that's very commendable. What is not commendable is their preventing any attempt to solve the problem by resettling."

"This is the only case in the world where a refugees problem has been purposely perpetuated by one of the parties involved - with the help of the United Nations," said Yosef Goell, political analyst and writer for the Jerusalem Post.