Panel set to publish report Saturday on accusations of UNRWA employees’ terror ties

Enquiry led by ex-French FM to address claims that staff were involved in Oct. 7 atrocities, are connected to terror groups; NGO alleges report ‘rigged,’ panel not objective

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Likud MK Boaz Bismuth and activists protest against United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) outside their offices in Jerusalem, April 9, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Boaz Bismuth and activists protest against United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) outside their offices in Jerusalem, April 9, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An independent panel conducting a review into severe allegations regarding United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) staff members’ alleged involvement with terror is set to release its final report on Saturday.

The review process was set up in February, after at least 15 countries froze their funding for the humanitarian agency for Palestinian refugees. This came following allegations by Israel that at least 12 UNRWA employees were directly involved in the October 7 atrocities perpetrated by Hamas; another 30 assisted or facilitated those crimes; and as much as 12 percent of the organization’s staff were affiliated with terror organizations.

These accusations came against the background of numerous past reports of antisemitism and glorification of terrorism among UNRWA staff, particularly within UNRWA’s extensive education system.

In March, the review panel said in an interim report, whose details were not published, that UNRWA has in place “a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance,” although it conceded that there are “critical areas that still need to be addressed.”

The review panel is led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna and is being conducted in collaboration with three research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden; the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway; and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated in February that he had appointed the independent group “to assess whether the Agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made.”

Video showing a UNRWA worker driving a white UN jeep, and abducting the body of Jonathan Samerano, who was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7. (Screenshot)

UNRWA’s biggest donors, including the United States and Germany, froze funding for the organization amid the allegations, although several countries have since resumed their financing of the agency, including Canada, Sweden and Australia, amid fears its collapse would exacerbate the difficult humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Following the establishment of the review panel, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant publicly revealed the identities of 12 UNRWA staff members who he said had “actively participated” in the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught on southern Israel.

He said that another 30 UNRWA employees facilitated the taking of hostages and looted and stole from Israeli communities, and alleged that at least 12% of UNRWA’s 13,000 employees in Gaza were affiliated with the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups.

Gallant said at the time that “1,468 workers are known to be active in Hamas and PIJ, 185 UNRWA workers are active in the military branches of Hamas and 51 are active in the PIJ military branch.”

In February, a video aired from October 7 showed two men, including an individual Gallant alleged was UNRWA social worker Faisal Ali Mussalem al-Naami outside Kibbutz Be’eri, taking the body of Jonathan Samerano, who was murdered by terrorists, and placing it in an SUV to take back to Gaza.

Both The Financial Times and Sky News reviewed an Israeli intelligence assessment document detailing the allegations against UNRWA officials, and noted that it did not provide any direct evidence of the claims beyond stating that they were based on “smartphone intercepts and captured identity cards.”

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at the end of January, however, that evidence provided by Israel on the allegations was “highly credible.”

In further damning revelations, IDF forces found in February a subterranean data center — complete with an electrical room, industrial battery power banks and living quarters for Hamas terrorists operating the computer servers — underneath UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City.

In a post on X following the publication, the agency’s head Philippe Lazzarini denied any knowledge of the Hamas data center. Israel said it was using electricity provided from the building above.

Numerous past reports have found that UNRWA schools and teachers continue to teach hatred of Jews and glorify terrorism, including a 2022 report by the IMPACT-SE organization that UNRWA textbooks continue to contain incitement, and a 2023 report by the same organization along with the UN Watch group citing dozens of examples of social media posts by UNRWA employees that “glorify terrorism, encourage martyrdom, demonize Israelis and incite antisemitism.”

Israeli graphic on 12 UNRWA staffers it alleges participated in the October 7 onslaught.

On Thursday, UN Watch issued its own report into the review panel in which it alleged that Colonna and the organizations involved in the review were not unbiased or objective, and claimed the report would be rigged.

UN Watch’s report pointed to comments by Colonna herself in February who said that “the aim of this important and delicate mission, entrusted to us by the Secretary General, is to enable donors, the largest among them, but in fact everyone, to regain confidence, when they have lost it or when they have doubts, in the way UNRWA operates.”

UN Watch, which is highly critical of numerous UN institutions including UNRWA, said these comments indicated that the report was “rigged” and had “a predetermined outcome to ensure the reinstatement of funding.”

The organization’s report also pointed to comments made by Colonna in January commending UNRWA for its work, before the allegations against the agency were made public, and UNRWA’s praise of Colonna for her support when she served as French foreign minister.

UN Watch also accused the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) organization of “extreme bias” in its publications in favor of UNRWA, including in 2022 when it found in a report that allegations against the agency were “unfounded claims.”

In February this year, a CMI researcher named Kjersti G. Berg, who has been involved in much of the organization’s published material on UNRWA, wrote a defense of the agency and its continued funding by international donors in an op-ed in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Berg deleted her X account on Wednesday.

Senior CMI staff have also accused Israel of genocide and supported South Africa’s suit in the International Court of Justice against Israel on genocide charges, as well as accusing Israel of practicing apartheid against Palestinians.

Similarly, the head of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Executive Director Peter Lundberg, accused Israel of “apartheid” in 2016 and also “liked” several social media posts expressing support for UNRWA since the allegations against it began to surface following October 7.

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