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UNRWA launches probe into 10 staffers amid allegations of antisemitism

UN agency for Palestinian refugees says group making accusations has history of slandering UNRWA, but admits some staffers’ comments may have violated its code of conduct

Palestinian students receive new studying books inside their classroom, during the first day of a new school year, at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)
Palestinian students receive new studying books inside their classroom, during the first day of a new school year, at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has announced an investigation into allegations of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias made against ten of its staffers throughout the Middle East.

The statement from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency came days after UN Watch — a pro-Israel group that monitors the UN’s activities — published a report alleging that 22 UNRWA staffers had engaged in online incitement.

The UN Watch report found over one hundred posts it deemed in violation of UNWRA’s policy of neutrality and nonviolence from personnel stationed in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Among the posts flagged was one by UNRWA Gaza math teacher Nahed Sharawi, who shared a video of Adolf Hitler with inspirational quotes to “enrich and enlighten your thoughts and minds.”

Another UNRWA teacher, Husni Masri from the West Bank, posted antisemitic conspiracy theories claiming Jews control the world, created the coronavirus and want to destroy Islam, the report found.

In a response to the report Thursday, UNRWA said that only 10 of the 22 staffers cited in the report are employed by the agency and while it noted that UN Watch has “a deep history of unfounded and politically-driven assertions against the agency,” it said it would still look into the allegations.

“UNRWA is upholding the values of the United Nations and has a zero-tolerance policy for hatred. The Agency takes each allegation seriously. It has immediately launched a thorough investigation through due process to determine if any of these 10 persons, out of more than 28,000 personnel, violated the Agency’s social media policies that prohibit personnel from engaging in non-neutral behaviors online,” it said.

Palestinian schoolchildren studying at an UNRWA school in Gaza City. (IRIN/Creative Commons via JTA)

The agency also appeared to acknowledge that some of its staffers crossed a line in their behavior online. “We are concerned that some of the posts violate our rules and policies, and should misconduct be found, UNRWA will take immediate administrative or disciplinary action,” it said.

UNRWA said that it had looked into previous allegations made by UN Watch and found that 57 percent of the cases could not be tied to employees of the agency. Those found in breach of its code of conduct were “either censured and/or subjected to financial penalties,” it said.

“To suggest that hate is widespread within the Agency and schools is not only misleading and false, but validates sensationalist and politically-motivated attacks that deliberately harm an already vulnerable community: refugee children,” UNRWA said.

Responding to the agency’s statement, UN Watch Director Hillel Neuer said it “misses the point entirely.”

“If the agency employs dozens of teachers and school principals who quote Hitler and praise Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist attacks, the issue isn’t their social media posts and their so-called ‘neutrality breaches,’ but rather the fact that UNRWA’s education system is repeatedly hiring and putting in the classroom teachers that admire Hitler and propagate hatred and terrorism,” he said.

Neuer slammed UNRWA for “trying to kill the messenger by maliciously attacking UN Watch for vetting their teachers” and called on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to fully probe “the pandemic of hate that has infected UNRWA’s educational system.”

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Under the administration of previous US president Donald Trump, Washington largely ended funding for the Palestinian Authority and for UNRWA, which runs a network of educational and medical programs for Palestinian refugees around the Middle East.

But the Biden administration has resumed funding the agency, adding $150 million in economic aid, while insisting that it would push for reforms within the agency and tolerate zero anti-Israel bias.

Israel has long pushed for UNRWA’s closure, arguing that it helps perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians since it confers refugee status upon descendants of those originally displaced around the time of Israel’s War of Independence.

UNRWA, whose 28,000 employees are mostly descendants of refugees, provides services such as education and healthcare to roughly 5.7 million Palestinians in camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon the West Bank and Gaza.

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