Review of UN agency helping Palestinian refugees found Israel did not express concern about staff


UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An independent review of the neutrality of the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency known as UNRWA had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks.

In a wide-ranging 48-page report released Monday, the independent panel said UNRWA has “robust” procedures to uphold the U.N. principle of neutrality, but it cited serious gaps in implementation, including staff publicly expressing political views, textbooks used in schools the agency runs with “problematic content” and staff unions disrupting operations.

From 2017 to 2022, the report said the annual number of allegations of neutrality being breached at UNRWA ranged from seven to 55. But between January 2022 and February 2024, U.N. 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, which was led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, 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 led to the suspension of contributions to UNRWA by the United States and more than a dozen other countries. That amounted to a pause in funding worth about $450 million, according to Monday’s report, but a number of countries have resumed contributions.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Monday called on donor countries to avoid sending money to the organization.

“The Colonna report ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of Hamas’ infiltration of UNRWA,” ministry spokesperson Oren Marmorstein said. “This is not what a genuine and thorough review looks like. This is what an effort to avoid the problem and not address it head on looks like.”

Colonna, speaking at the United Nations as the report was released, said the panel had been well received by Israelis while conducting its review and she urged the Israeli government not to discount it. “Of course you will find it is insufficient, but please take it on board. Whatever we recommend, if implemented, will bring good.”

The report stresses the critical importance of UNRWA, calling it “irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development” in the absence of a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “pivotal in providing life-saving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric welcomed this commitment to UNRWA and said the report “lays out clear recommendations, which the secretary-general accepts.”

UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said last week he accepts all recommendations. As Israel has called for the breakup of the agency, Lazzarini told the U.N. Security Council that dismantling UNRWA would deepen Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and speed up the onset of famine.

International experts have warned of imminent famine in northern Gaza and said half the territory’s 2.3 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation if the Israeli-Hamas war intensifies.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also ordered the U.N. internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, to carry out an investigation into the Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA staffers participated in the Oct. 7 attacks. That report is eagerly awaited.

In its interim report on March 20, the panel noted UNRWA’s “significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principles of neutrality” but also identified “critical areas that need to be addressed.”

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