Israel yet to provide evidence of UN Palestinian refugee agency staff terrorist links, report says

Review by French former foreign minister finds government yet to substantiate claims of Hamas 'infiltration' of UNWRA

Bel Trew
Chief International Correspondent
Monday 22 April 2024 19:16 BST
Israel gave no evidence UNRWA staff linked to ‘terrorism’: Colonna report

Israel has yet to provide evidence that employees of the United Nations’s Palestinian refugee Agency (UNRWA) are members of terrorist organisations, according to an independent review led by the French former minister Catherine Colonna.

The UN appointed Ms Colonna to lead the UNRWA neutrality review in February after Israel alleged that 12 of its staffers took part in the Hamas-led October 7 attack, during which militants killed around 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage. The Hamas attack triggered Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, which Palestinian health officials say has killed more than 33,000 people, and UN aid agencies say sparked a man-made famine.

The Independent reviewed a copy of the 48-page report, into the neutrality of the UN agency, which found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The report also found that UNRWA had “robust” frameworks in place to maintain neutrality in Gaza which were “more developed” than other similar UN groups, but that “neutrality-related issues persist”.

It cited instances of staff publicly expressing political views, host-country textbooks with “problematic content” and “politicised staff unions making threats against UNRWA management and causing operational disruptions”.

Israel, which has long condemned UNRWA and has lobbied to have it shut down, stepped up its accusations in March, saying more than 450 agency staff were military operatives in Gaza terrorist groups.

These allegations led 16 states, including the UK and the US, to pause or suspend funding of $450 million, a crippling blow to the agency already struggling to respond to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that has ravaged Gaza.

UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave.

The UN’s secretary general, Antonio Antonio Guterres, said in statement that he accepts the recommendations contained in Ms Colonna's report to improve UNRWA's capacity to monitor and address neutrality issues. He urged all countries to actively support UNRWA as it is "a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region".

Palestinians inspect the debris after Israeli bombardment at Al-Daraj neighbourhood in Gaza City
Palestinians inspect the debris after Israeli bombardment at Al-Daraj neighbourhood in Gaza City (AFP via Getty Images)

A separate investigation is being carried out into the 7 October attack by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services.

In response to the report by Ms Colonna, Israel's Foreign Ministry 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."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called for the agency to be shut down, saying it seeks to preserve the issue of Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini in March warned of "a deliberate and concerted campaign" to end its operations which are essential to the besieged strip.

Mr Lazzarini said they fired 10 of the 12 UNRWA staffers alleged to have participated in the Oct. 7 attacks while the other two are dead. Two investigations were also ordered, including the one led by Ms Colonna and one looking into the Israeli allegations against the 12 UNRWA staff.

In a key section on the neutrality of staff, Colonna’s report said UNRWA shares lists of staff with host countries including Lebanon and Syria as well as Israel and the US for its 32,000 staff, including about 13,000 in Gaza.

The reports said It is then the responsibility of these states to alert UNRWA of any information that may deem a staff member unworthy of diplomatic immunity.

But it said Israeli officials never expressed concern. The Israeli Foreign Ministry informed the review panel that until March 2024 the staff lists did not include Palestinian identification numbers, the report said.

On the basis of the March 2024 list of staff, which contained Palestinian ID numbers, Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations.

“However, Israeli authorities have to date not provided any supporting evidence nor responded to letters from UNRWA in March, and again in April, requesting the names and supporting evidence that would enable UNRWA to open an investigation,“ the report concluded.

“According to UNRWA, the Israeli government has not informed UNRWA of any concrete concerns relating to UNRWA staff since 2011.”

The reports acknowledged that UNRWA has "a more developed approach" to neutrality than other similar UN. or aid groups, "despite this robust framework, neutrality-related issues persist.”

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.

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 publication of the independent review into UNRWA, rights urged countries to resume aid

Julia Rosell Jackson, who works for ActionAid UK, said that given the scale of the devastation in Gaza “ it is imperative” that the UK restores funding to Unrwa, the largest humanitarian actor in the strip,

"It makes little sense for the UK to provide aid to Gaza while simultaneously withholding funding from the key organisation which is best placed to coordinate and support its distribution”

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