Middle EastAnalysis

Unrwa given fresh lease of life as report says Israel’s claims of Hamas links have not been backed up

Review says Israel has not provided evidence that relief agency’s staff took part in October 7th attack on Israel

A widely anticipated report issued on Monday by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna has given a fresh lease of life to Unrwa, the UN agency providing food, shelter, education and welfare for Palestinian refugees.

Colonna’s independent review said Israel has offered no evidence for its accusation that Unrwa employees had taken part in the October 7th raid when Hamas crossed from Gaza into Israel, killing 1,200 and abducting 250, according to Israeli figures. The UN appointed Colonna to lead the review. It called Unrwa a “humanitarian lifeline” and said: “Unrwa is irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development.” The endorsement could not have been stronger.

Unrwa’s existence has been under threat since January, when 16 donors suspended critical funding after Israel accused 12 of Unrwa’s 13,000 Gaza staff members of involvement in the assault on southern Israel. Unrwa’s commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini promptly dismissed employees identified by Israel in its accusations. Israel has subsequently produced fresh accusations against hundreds of Unrwa employees, maintaining pressure on donors to defund the agency.

While the mainstay US contribution of $343.9 million (€321 million) to the Unrwa annual budget of $1.63 billion remains frozen until March 2025, 10 of the 18 countries that suspended funding have reinstated donations. To meet the shortfall, Ireland, the European Union and others have increased contributions and new donors have come forward. Unrwa has said its work is funded until the end of June.


Since its establishment in December 1949, Unrwa has struggled to finance operations in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Despite long-standing Israeli demands for Unrwa’s disbandment, its role has become increasingly vital for stability as the number of refugees swelled from 750,000 to 5.9 million while the region faced multiple conflicts and economic meltdown.

Israel argues that Unrwa has perpetuated the conflict by granting refugee status to descendants of Palestinians rendered homeless by war in 1948 when the state of Israel was formed.

This practice has also been adopted by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Furthermore, UN General Assembly resolution 194, adopted in December 1948, grants Palestinians the right to return to their homes at the earliest practicable date. Unrwa was established in 1949 to provide for Palestinians until they went home. This has been rejected by Israel.

Palestinian refugees have resisted absorption by Arab hosts. They remain deeply attached to their land and have their own history, culture, traditions and Arabic dialects. Their demand for proper statehood has led to the adoption of the two-state solution by the international community. Until this is achieved the refugees will have to rely on Unrwa because no combination of other relief agencies can replace the agency’s infrastructure and staff.

To satisfy the recommendations of Colonna’s review, Unrwa will have to adopt fresh reforms that enhance the “neutrality” of its highly politicised staff while Israel is waging war on Gaza and conducting a crackdown in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.