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Report says Israel has not provided evidence of widespread militancy among UNRWA staff

JERUSALEM — Israel has not provided evidence that a significant number of workers at the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees are linked to militant groups, but the agency must implement stricter monitoring of members of the staff to ensure neutrality and work to rebuild trust with donors, a much-anticipated goal. report said Monday.

Based on a review of the selection procedures, code of ethics, management structure, staff training and other practices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the group The independent review concluded that the agency has “established and updated a significant number of policies, mechanisms and procedures.” » to maintain neutrality in recent years, but needs crucial reforms.

“In the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA remains essential in providing life-saving humanitarian assistance and essential social services, including health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank. » says the report.

The United Nations General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the creation of the State of Israel. More than seven decades later, UNRWA continues to administer government-like services for more than 5 million people in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The findings released Monday will largely come as a relief to the embattled agency, which was plunged into an existential crisis in January after Israel claimed that a dozen of its 13,000 employees in Gaza had participated in attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7 and that the agency was largely infiltrated by Hamas and other militant groups.

Sixteen major donors, including the United States, have suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half of UNRWA’s budget for the year. UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini immediately fired the staff members in question – a sign, he said, of how seriously the agency was taking the allegations. But Israel – long opposed to an agency it sees as perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue and stoking anti-Semitism – has called for UNRWA to be dissolved.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in February, without providing evidence, that Israel had intelligence indicating that 30 additional UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attack and that 12 percent of employees of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip were affiliated with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. , a smaller Islamist group in the Gaza Strip.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tasked the independent review panel in February “to assess whether the Agency is doing everything in its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious violations when ‘they are formulated’.

The body, led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and a trio of Scandinavian research institutes, has not looked into accusations that some UNRWA employees participated in the October 7 attacks; These claims are being examined separately by investigators from the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is expected to release its own report later this year.

In some ways, it was a higher-stakes investigation: Several major donors, including Germany and Britain, said restoring their funding to the agency was based on assessments of its neutrality.

The group spoke with more than 200 people, including senior UNRWA leaders from across the region and officials from donor states, host countries, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, during his nine-week exam.

Its final report outlines a variety of measures, including staff training and investigative procedures, that the agency has taken to maintain neutrality and discipline employees who violate humanitarian principles. He also said UNRWA had put in place mechanisms to prevent its facilities from being misused for political or military purposes, while calling for more regular inspections.

Regarding personnel verification, the report states that UNRWA annually shares personnel lists with host countries and with Israel for East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. The United States also receives the lists upon request. It is then up to these states to raise any alarm signals – but Israel has not done so since 2011, according to the report.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry informed the group that it had received lists of personnel without Palestinian identification numbers before March 2024.

“Based on the March 2024 list, which contained Palestinian identification numbers, Israel publicly stated that a significant number of UNRWA employees were members of terrorist organizations,” the report said. “However, Israel has yet to provide evidence to support this. »

UNRWA checks all its affiliates against the UN sanctions list every two years. But the sanctions list is “limited to a small number of individuals, and UNRWA does not have the intelligence support to undertake effective and comprehensive monitoring.”

UNRWA has already agreed to provide donors with lists of its employees, including information on their identity cards, on a quarterly basis. The report calls on host countries and Israel to screen personnel and share evidence of any concerning findings.

The group also examined Israeli allegations that UNRWA-run schools rely on teaching materials that deny Israel’s right to exist and glorify resistance to violence. Colonna’s team said UNRWA had taken steps to remove politicized material from PA textbooks, noting that a study last year found that a “small fraction” of pages school textbooks contained objectionable content.

“Even if marginal, these issues constitute a serious violation of neutrality,” the report said, urging UNRWA to audit the content of the learning materials with Israeli and other authorities.

Overall, the lack of funding significantly hampers efforts to maintain the organization’s neutrality, the group found.

UNRWA is unique in the United Nations ecosystem because it provides basic services to a specific population and recruits most of its 32,000 employees from the pool of Palestinian refugees it serves. Staff are “living the occupation,” which creates both valuable expertise and challenges in ensuring neutrality, Adam Bouloukos, UNRWA West Bank director, said in an interview last month.

“Breaches of neutrality committed by UNRWA personnel often take the form of social media posts, particularly following incidents of violence affecting colleagues or relatives,” the report said, recommending that he agency is doing more to create space for workers to discuss traumatic events.

Yet agency policy — as outlined by the review group — requires employees to demonstrate neutrality at all times or face disciplinary action. UNRWA vehemently rejects accusations that it is largely infiltrated by Hamas or complicit in militant activities. He claims that Israel has still not provided detailed evidence to support its allegations.

The U.S. intelligence community was unable to verify Israeli claims about Oct. 7 with a high degree of confidence, officials told the Washington Post in February.

A Post analysis found that the face and vehicle of a man captured in CCTV footage from Kibbutz Beeri on October 7, dragging the limp body of an Israeli into a car, appeared to match those of Faisal Ali Musalam Naami , 45, from UNRWA. social worker identified by Israel as having participated in the attacks. Separately, The Post was unable to independently verify the Israeli allegations.

UNRWA, meanwhile, said this month that Palestinian UNRWA personnel in Gaza detained by the Israel Defense Forces had been subjected to mistreatment during Israeli detentions and had been “subjected to pressure during interrogations to make forced confessions against the Agency.”

“The Israeli military acts in accordance with Israeli and international law to protect the rights of detainees held in detention and interrogation centers,” the Israeli military said in a statement to the Post.

In addition to funding problems, according to the agency, Israel has restricted its access to northern Gaza and repeatedly struck UNRWA facilities in Gaza. Lazzarini told the UN Security Council last week that 178 UNRWA employees had been killed since the start of the war and called for an investigation. West Bank personnel face increasing harassment from Israeli soldiers and settlers. In East Jerusalem, Israeli politicians seek to expel UNRWA from its headquarters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s post-war plan for Gaza, unveiled in February, envisages the dismantling of UNRWA.

“UNRWA is Hamas and Hamas is UNRWA,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council last week.

“Israel cannot and will not allow UNRWA to continue to intervene in Gaza as it has done in the past,” he said. “The time has come to defund UNRWA. »

Despite the harsh rhetoric, some officials in Jerusalem quietly acknowledge that abolishing the agency in the near future could harm Israeli interests, as UNRWA provides aid and services in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel loathes. to assume.

Gaza is in the grip of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with more than 2 million people at risk of starvation, according to the world’s food insecurity monitoring body.

UNRWA is “the backbone of the humanitarian operation” in Gaza, Lazzarini told the Security Council last week, making a desperate appeal to member states to support an agency “under enormous strain “.

Most major donors have restored funding since January. But U.S. contributions — which at $422 million in 2023 dwarfed those of other top donors — are on hold until March 2025, after congressional Republicans last month imposed a ban on funding for a year on a government spending program.

Despite this, the Biden administration has continued to publicly recognize the importance of UNRWA to the region: Deputy US Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood told the Security Council on Wednesday that it plays an “indispensable role” in Gaza.

Guterres accepted the recommendations and agreed with Lazzarini that UNRWA “will establish an action plan” to implement them, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement Monday.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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