Israel still hasn’t provided evidence to back up claims UNRWA staff linked to Gaza militants, panel says

A review of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has found that it has “robust” frameworks to ensure compliance with humanitarian neutrality principles, though issues persist, in a report which could prompt some donors to review funding freezes.

The wide-ranging 48-page report, released on Monday, also said Israel had yet to provide supporting evidence for its claim — based on a staff list it was given in March — that a significant number of UNRWA staff were members of militant groups. 

The UN appointed former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to lead the UNRWA neutrality review in February, after Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA staff took part in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks, which prompted Israel to declare war on the militant group and to carry out devastating aerial and ground assaults on Gaza.  

Israel stepped up its accusations against the UN agency in March, saying over 450 UNRWA staff were operatives in Gaza-based militant groups.

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, UN investigators received 151 allegations, most related to social media posts “made public by external sources,” it said.

UNRWA, the main agency helping Palestinian refugees, employs some 13,000 people in Gaza. (Adel Hana/The Associated Press)

The report said Israel had made public claims based on an UNRWA staff list provided to it in March that “a significant number” of UNRWA staff were members of “terrorist organizations.”

“However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this,” the report 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.

Israel’s mission to the UN did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the Colonna-led review.

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

UNRWA said it terminated the contracts of 10 of the 12 staff accused by Israel of involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks, and that the other two are dead.

WATCH | UNRWA head on pressures of responding to humanitarian crisis in Gaza: 

Head of UN relief agency describes unravelling situation in Gaza

UNRWA commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini tells The National’s Adrienne Arsenault about the pressures of the unravelling humanitarian situation in Gaza and responds to allegations that some of the organization’s workers were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel.

According to the Israeli government, militants killed some 1,200 people in the Oct. 7 attacks. Israel’s war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people, the majority of which were women and children, according to Gaza health authorities.

UNRWA has reported at least 178 staff and colleagues killed since the start of the war, and more than 163 of its buildings and other installations in Gaza have been damaged. 

Israel wants donor countries to stop funding UNRWA

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.

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

But several other nations, including Canada, had already restored their funding prior to the release of the report.

WATCH | Canada resumes funding UN’s Palestinian relief agency after Israel allegations: 

Canada confirms it will restore UNRWA funding

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen says Canada is restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, after pausing it in January when Israel claimed some of its employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has accepted the panel’s recommendations, his spokesperson said, calling on all countries to actively support UNRWA as it is “a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region.”

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’s 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.”

Political views, textbooks among neutrality challenges

The report 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.

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.”

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 seeks to preserve the issue of Palestinian refugees.

WATCH | Canada’s UN ambassador explains government’s decision to resume funding UNRWA

Not funding UNRWA a ‘disservice’ given Gaza’s current situation: Canada’s UN ambassador

Canada has announced it is restoring funding for UNRWA. That funding was frozen in January following Israel’s allegations that some of UNRWA’s staff were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae explains what led to this decision.

UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said last week he accepts all recommendations.

Lazzarini told the UN 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 Israel-Hamas war intensifies.



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