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. It makes 50 recommendations to improve UNRWA’s neutrality.

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” to the refugee agency.

An independent review led by French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and released Monday, April 22, 2023, of the neutrality of the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the UNRWA staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
An independent review led by French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and released Monday, April 22, 2023, of the neutrality of the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the UNRWA staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Hussein Malla via Associated Press

Colonna stressed that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed the independent review panel to review UNRWA’s neutrality — not to investigate Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA staffers participated in the Oct. 7 attacks. Guterres ordered the U.N. internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, known as OIOS, to conduct a separate investigation into those Israeli allegations.

“It is a separate mission. And it is not in our mandate,” Colonna said. She also said it is not surprising that Israel did not provide evidence of its allegations to the refugee agency “because it doesn’t owe this evidence during the investigation to UNRWA but to the OIOS.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Monday the U,N. hopes to have an update from OIOS “in the coming days.” He said its investigators have been in contact with Israeli security services.

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 urged the Israeli government not to discount the independent review. “Of course you will find it is insufficient, but please take it on board. Whatever we recommend, if implemented, will bring good,” she said.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a sit-in in solidarity with Gaza in front of the UNRWA office in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, April 18, 2024. An independent probe of the agency found that Israel never expressed concern about the staff.
Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a sit-in in solidarity with Gaza in front of the UNRWA office in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, April 18, 2024. An independent probe of the agency found that Israel never expressed concern about the staff.

Hassan Ammar via Associated Press

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.”

Dujarric welcomed this commitment to UNRWA and said the report “lays out clear recommendations, which the secretary-general accepts.” The U.N. hopes to see the return of donors as well as new donors following the report’s release, he said.

Among the recommendations are steps to tackle politicization of UNRWA staff and its staff unions. The report recommends that staff lists with ID numbers be provided to host countries, which would then tell UNRWA the results of their screening and “any red flags.”

The report also calls for stronger oversight of UNRWA’s leadership and operations, “zero-tolerance” of antisemitism or discrimination in textbooks used in its schools, and greater international involvement in supporting the agency as it addresses neutrality issues.

UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said safeguarding the agency’s neutrality is critical to its work and it is developing a plan to implement the report’s recommendations.

With Israel calling for the breakup of the agency, Lazzarini told the U.N. Security Council last week 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.

The review was conducted over nine weeks by Colonna and three Scandinavian research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. Colonna said the group spoke with more than 200 people, including UNRWA staff in Gaza, and had direct contacts with representatives of 47 countries and organizations.

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