Guterres accepts findings; UN Watch: Report is a 'whitewash'

UNRWA review: Israel hasn’t provided evidence that agency staff were terror group members

Independent panel says UN Palestinian refugee agency has ‘robust’ neutrality mechanisms but that issues persist; Israel: ‘Impossible to say where UNRWA ends and Hamas begins’

Palestinians demonstrate in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), January 30, 2024. (AFP)
Palestinians demonstrate in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), January 30, 2024. (AFP)

An independent review published Monday of the beleaguered UN agency for Palestinian refugees said that Israel had yet to provide supporting evidence for its claims that a significant number of agency staff were members of terrorist organizations and argued that UNRWA had “robust” policies in place to ensure staff neutrality.

Israel rejected the findings, saying it only provided “cosmetic fixes,” reasserting its position that the agency was intertwined with Hamas and could not play a future role in Gaza. A prominent UN watchdog also called the report a “whitewash.”

The United Nations appointed former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to lead the UNRWA neutrality review in February after Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA staff actively participated in the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught in which 1,200 people were killed and another 253 taken hostage.

The assault on southern Israel triggered Israel’s war against the terror group in Gaza.

Israel subsequently claimed another 30 UNRWA staffers assisted or facilitated those crimes on October 7 and as much as 12 percent of the organization’s staff were affiliated with terror organizations.

In a separate investigation, a UN oversight body is looking into the Israeli allegations against the 12 UNRWA staff.

The Colonna-led review’s final report determined that UNRWA has robust frameworks in place to ensure compliance with humanitarian neutrality principles, though issues persist.

Video showing an UNRWA worker driving a white UN jeep, and abducting the body of Jonathan Samerano, who was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Screenshot)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres didn’t wait until the formal release, issuing a statement Monday morning declaring that he accepted the panel’s recommendations and calling on all countries to actively support UNRWA as it is “a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region.”

From 2017 to 2022, the report said the annual number of allegations of neutrality being breached at UNRWA ranged from 7 to 55. But between January 2022 and February 2024 UN investigators received 151 allegations, most related to social media posts “made public by external sources,” it said.

In a key section on the neutrality of staff, the panel said UNRWA shares lists of staff with host countries for its 32,000 staff, including about 13,000 in Gaza. But it said Israeli officials never expressed concern and informed panel members it did not consider the list “a screening or vetting process” but rather a procedure to register diplomats.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry informed the panel that until March 2024 the staff lists did not include Palestinian identification numbers, the report said.

Apparently based on those numbers, “Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations,” the panel said. “However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this.”

Israel’s allegations against the dozen UNRWA staff led 16 states to pause or suspend funding of $450 million to UNRWA, a blow to an agency grappling with the humanitarian crisis that has swept Gaza since Israel launched its offensive there.

Israel has long complained about the agency, founded in 1949 to care for Palestinian refugees. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for UNRWA to be shut down, saying it is infested by terror elements and unjustly seeks to perpetrate Palestinian refugee crisis.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) chief Philippe Lazzarini attends a press conference by the United Nations secretary-general and Egypt’s foreign minister, following their meeting at the New Administrative Capital east of Cairo on March 24, 2024. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini in March warned of “a deliberate and concerted campaign” to end its operations.

UNRWA says it terminated the contracts of 10 of the 12 staff accused by Israel of involvement in the October 7 attack, and that the other two are dead.

UNRWA employs 32,000 people across its area of operations, 13,000 of them in Gaza.

Political views, textbooks

UNRWA shares staff lists annually with Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Israel, the review said.

It noted that UNRWA has “a more developed approach” to neutrality than other similar UN or aid groups. “Despite this robust framework, neutrality-related issues persist,” it found.

It said these included some staff publicly expressing political views, textbooks with problematic content being used in some UNRWA schools, and politicized staff unions making threats against UNRWA management and disrupting operations.

In Gaza, UNRWA’s neutrality challenges included the size of the operation, with most personnel being locally recruited and also recipients of UNRWA services, the review said. Gaza had been under tight Hamas rule since 2007.

Activists protest against United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) outside their offices in Jerusalem, March 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Some states had resumed UNRWA funding but had requested “a reinforcement of UNRWA’s existing neutrality mechanisms and procedures, including staff vetting and oversight.”

The report recommended establishing “a continuous vetting process, especially in the event of staff promotion.”

It called UNRWA “irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development.”

Following the Israeli allegations against UNRWA staff, the United States, UNRWA’s biggest donor at $300-400 million a year, paused funding, then the US Congress suspended contributions until at least March 2025.

‘This isn’t a problem a few bad apples’

Responding to the review, the Foreign Ministry said that Hamas’s penetration of the UN agency is so deep that “it is impossible to say where UNRWA ends and Hamas begins.”

“If more than 2,135 UNRWA employees are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and 1/5 of the principals of UNRWA schools are Hamas activists, the problem with UNRWA-Gaza is not a problem of a few bad apples,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, rejecting the review’s conclusions. “It is a poisoned and rotten tree whose roots are Hamas.”

The report “ignores the severity of the problem and offers cosmetic fixes,” charged the Foreign Ministry.

“This is not what a true and comprehensive investigation looks like,” said the statement. “This is what a desire to avoid the problem and not call it by its name looks like.”

A prominent pro-Israel lobbying group at the United Nations, UN Watch, also lambasted the report, calling it a “whitewash.”

UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer said that the Colonna report was “a complete whitewash, ignoring hundreds of pages and thousands of screenshots and videos in our submission to the probe, which contained evidence of widespread promotion of terrorism by UNRWA staff, and its systemic refusal to stop it.”

UN Watch also noted that Colonna’s goal at the start of the probe was not to find the truth, but to “reassure donors.”

Israel has asserted that UNRWA is not part of the solution for Gaza and never will be, and that donor nations should direct their funds to other humanitarian organizations.

In February, a video aired from October 7 showed two men, including an individual identified as 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.

The picture of Palestinian terrorist Dalal Mughrabi who carried out the Coastal Road Massacre is featured on a classroom chalkboard in the Al-Zaytun Elementary School in Gaza run by the UNRWA Palestinian humanitarian aid agency. (Courtesy IMPACT-se)

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.

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. A 2023 report by the same organization along with the UN Watch group cited dozens of examples of social media posts by UNRWA employees that “glorify terrorism, encourage martyrdom, demonize Israelis and incite antisemitism.”

The review was led by Colonna and 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, all of which have been accused by the pro-Israel UN Watch organization of seeking to exonerate UNRWA in order to preserve its international funding.

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