People walk past the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

People walk past the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which provides assistance to millions of Palestinians, in Gaza City, Gaza on February 21, 2024.

(Photo: Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu via Getty Images)

'Damning' Independent Probe Finds Israel Has Yet to Provide Evidence Against UNRWA

The U.S. House on Saturday passed a bill including a prohibition on funding the agency, due to Israel's unsubstantiated claims that UNRWA employees have terrorism links.

Countries that have continued to suspend their funding of the United Nations' top relief agency in the occupied Palestinian territories were left with "no room" to justify their decision, said critics on Monday as an independent investigation into Israel's allegations against the organization revealed Israeli officials have ignored requests to provide evidence to support their claims.

Catherine Colonna, the former foreign minister of France, released her findings in a probe regarding Israel's claims that a significant number of employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) were members of terrorist groups.

Nearly three months after U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres commissioned the report, Colonna said Israel "has yet to provide supporting evidence" of its allegation that "a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations."

Colonna's findings were bolstered by an investigation led by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which separately sought evidence from Israel.

"Israeli authorities have to date not provided any supporting evidence nor responded to letters from UNRWA in March, and again in April, requesting the names and supporting evidence that would enable UNRWA to open an investigation," said the Nordic groups.

The reports come nearly three months after Israel made its initial allegation that 12 UNRWA employees took part in the October 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, a claim that prompted the United States—the largest international funder of the agency, which subsists mainly on donations—to swiftly halt its funding. Israel also claimed that as many as 12% of UNRWA's employees were members of terrorist organizations.

As Common Dreamsreported at the time, Israel's announcement came hours after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a preliminary ruling that found Israel was "plausibly" committing genocide in Gaza by relentlessly striking the enclave and blocking almost all humanitarian aid to its 2.3 million people.

The Biden administration has dismissed the ICJ's finding.

The United States' suspension of UNRWA funding set off a domino effect, leading at least 15 countries to freeze their contributions, even though the U.N. had reported a month earlier that Israel's air, land, and sea blockade on Gaza was pushing hundreds of thousands of civilians into starvation.

Countries including Sweden, Japan, France, and Australia have reinstated their funding of the agency in recent weeks, citing concerns about the intensifying humanitarian crisis in Gaza—where more than two dozen children have died of starvation so far—and Israel's lack of evidence.

Lawmakers in the U.S., which provides nearly $344 million to UNRWA annually, included a prohibition on funding for the agency in its foreign aid bill that passed in the House of Representatives on Saturday, while the United Kingdom has said it would make a decision about resuming funding after the Colonna report was released.

"The report leaves no room for Britain to justify the continued suspension of funds," said the independent news group Declassified U.K.

Colonna's report, which was accepted by Guterres Monday, noted that UNRWA is more rigorous than other U.N. agencies in its internal oversight of its staff and their neutrality.

"The review revealed that UNRWA has established a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principles, with emphasis on the principle of neutrality, and that it possesses a more developed approach to neutrality than other similar U.N. or NGO entities," reads the report.

Guterres called on donor countries to "fully cooperate in the implementation of the recommendations" of the report.

"Moving forward, the secretary-general appeals to all stakeholders to actively support UNRWA, as it is a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region," said the U.N. chief's office in a statement.

Despite the U.K.'s claim that it would review Colonna's report to determine whether to resume funding, The Guardianreported the government was "unlikely" to make a prompt decision based on the findings, as Conservative lawmakers have urged Foreign Secretary David Cameron against doing so.

The continued suspension of donations, said U.K.-based researcher and activist Gary Spedding, "is unjustifiable and at total odds with the rest of our allies (except the USA) who resumed funding."

"Our government has so much to answer for regarding the decision to pause funding without any evidence whatsoever, then sustain that decision even while other allies resumed and Palestinians in Gaza starved and died from sickness and disease, and even now we still haven't resumed," said Spedding. "We must have accountability and answers. Why did the government pause funding to begin with despite no evidence being presented by Israel? Why have we joined in on damaging UNRWA as part of Israel's plan to dismantle it? Why are Palestinian lives and rights worth so little?"

Colonna's report, said Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft executive vice president Trita Parsi, is "not only damning for Israel."

"It is also damning for all the Western countries," he said, "that cut funding for UNRWA on mere (now debunked) accusations by Israel."

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