UN chief taps panel to probe UNRWA ‘neutrality’ after Israeli allegations

Israel to send information about staffers’ role in October 7 massacre to inquest led by ex-French foreign minister; relief agency head tours Gulf in bid to make up for frozen funds

UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) worker walking at the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, February 4, 2024. (Photo by Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) worker walking at the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, February 4, 2024. (Photo by Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The United Nations appointed an independent panel to assess Palestinian relief agency UNRWA, it announced Monday, following Israeli allegations that some staffers were involved in Hamas’s October 7 massacres in southern Israel. The move drew praise from Jerusalem, which said it would submit materials to the probe.

The announcement came as UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini visited the Gulf in a bid to drum up support for the embattled aid provider after key donors suspended funding in the wake of Israeli intelligence allegedly showing that 12 staff members were involved in the brutal attacks and that hundreds more employees were directly linked to Hamas and other terror groups.

Some 15 countries, including top donors the United States, Germany, Britain and Sweden, have suspended funding to UNRWA over the allegations, raising concerns that the agency may no longer be able to deliver vital aid to Gaza’s beleaguered population, which has been left vulnerable after months of war sparked by the Hamas massacre.

In a Monday statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that he had appointed an 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.”

The review board will work in parallel to an internal UN investigation looking into the involvement of UNRWA staff in the October 7 massacre, in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed in southern Israel killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapping 253 to Gaza.

“The cooperation of the Israeli authorities, who made these allegations, will be critical to the success of the investigation,” Guterres said.

Israelis protest against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Jerusalem, Monday, February 5, 2024. (Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo)

Foreign Minister Israel Katz promised in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that Israel would “submit all evidence highlighting UNRWA’s ties to terrorism and its harmful effects on regional stability.”

The foreign minister also urged the independent review board to bring “the truth to light” and repeated a call for the “immediate resignation” of Lazzarini.

The panel will be led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, 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 António Guterres speaks on January 23, 2024, at United Nations Headquarters. (AP Photo/ Peter K. Afriyie)

Guterres said it would submit an interim report late next month, followed by a final report a month later, which will be made public.

Amid the allegations, compiled by Israel were charges that UNRWA employees kidnapped Israelis, transported ammunition and the body of a dead soldier, and took part in a murderous assault on a kibbutz on October 7.

The UN chief previously said that nine of the 12 staff members implicated by Israel had been terminated, one was dead, and the identities of the other two were being clarified.

The 12 staffers at UNRWA alleged to have been involved in the October 7 onslaught. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel has long sought for UNRWA to be shuttered, claiming that it fosters hate for the Jewish state, perpetuates Palestinian grievances and aids terror, but the complaints have largely failed to gain traction until now.

Lazzarini and other backers of the group have described those involved in atrocities as a few bad apples among some 13,000 employees in Gaza.

The UNRWA head met Monday with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss UNRWA’s work in “preserving the stability in the region” and delivering aid to two million people in Gaza, he said on X.

Spokesperson Juliette Touma told Reuters that Lazzarini will visit Qatar and Kuwait later this week.

“We are hoping those that paused (funding) will reconsider and others will step forward as well,” she said.

Kuwait and Qatar occupy the number 19 and 20 spots in UNRWA’s list of top 20 donors, giving $12 million and $10.5 million each in 2022. The United Arab Emirates was not listed.

UNRWA was established in 1949 following the war surrounding the founding of Israel, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.

It employs 30,000 Palestinians to serve the civic and humanitarian needs of 5.9 million descendants of those refugees — in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, and in vast camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, it is providing shelter for some one million people newly displaced by the war between Israel and Hamas, sparked by the October 7 attacks.

A worker rests as displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024. (AFP)

Guterres noted that the Israeli accusations “come at a time when UNRWA, the largest UN organization in the region, is working under extremely challenging conditions to deliver life-saving assistance to the 2 million people in the Gaza Strip who depend on it for their survival amidst one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told lawmakers on Monday that the country would send UNRWA an additional 3.5 million euros ($3.8 million) in aid following the mass funding suspensions.

Madrid contributed 18.5 million euros directly to UNRWA in 2023, including 10 million euros approved in December following the decision to triple development and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories.

However, Touma said that the extra help was not nearly enough to offset the gap created by the freezes, estimated at about $440 million.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the UNRWA’s dismantlement and replacement.

However, some Israeli officials have voiced concern over the potential economic fallout of axing the agency — one of the largest employers in the West Bank and Gaza — mid-war.

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