No evidence UNRWA staff linked to Palestinian groups as Israel claims: Colonna review report

Ahram Online , AP , Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Israel has not provided evidence that a significant number of workers in the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA are tied to Palestinian resistance groups, the agency, according to a review report released on Monday night.

File Photo: UNRWA workers distribute Food crates from one of its facility in Gaza strip. Photo courtesy of UNRWA.


An independent review of the UNRWA’s neutrality found that Israel has never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011.

UNRWA shares lists of staff with host countries for its 32,000 staff, including about 13,000 in Gaza, and serves 5.9 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and war-torn Gaza, according to the panel led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, in a key section on the neutrality of staff.

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 review was carried out after Israel alleged, without any evidence, that a dozen employees of the UNRWA had participated in the 7 October events.

In the wide-ranging 48-page report released Monday, the independent panel review, appointed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, concluded that UNRWA has “robust” procedures to uphold the UN principle of neutrality and has “established and updated a significant number of policies, mechanisms and procedures” to maintain neutrality in recent years.

From 2017 to 2022, the annual number of allegations of UNRWA's neutrality being breached ranged from seven to 55. However, between January 2022 and February 2024, UN investigators received 151 allegations, mostly related to social media posts “made public by external sources,” the report said.

“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," it added.


Irreplaceable and indispensable

Despite allegations of Israel and its supporters of UNRWA schools being factories of anti-Semitic hate, the review showed that two of them identified bias and non-compliant content, but did not provide evidence of anti-Semitic references. A third, the Eckert report, identified two examples that displayed anti-Semitic content but noted that one had already been removed and the other significantly altered.

According to Monday’s report, these allegations amounted to a pause in funding to UNRWA by the United States and more than a dozen other countries, worth about $450 million.

In April, Washington banned funding UNRWA until at least 2025, but other donors have pledged additional funding or restored their donations.

Some countries have already resumed contributions, but Israel announced it would reject UNRWA’s requests to deliver aid into northern Gaza, where famine is unfolding and starvation is used as a "weapon of war."

Moreover, Israeli authorities continue to block or severely delay lifesaving aid shipments, according to UN officials, who launched an appeal last week for emergency funding.

Israel’s foreign ministry rejected the report and called on donor countries to avoid sending money to the organization.

“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,” ministry spokesperson Oren Marmorstein said. 

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.

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 its nine-week-long review of existing mechanisms, the group conducted more than 200 interviews, met with Israeli and Palestinian authorities, and directly contacted 47 countries and organizations.

The report also gives 50 recommendations to improve UNRWA's neutrality.

The recommendations include steps to address the 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.”

It also suggests exploring the possibility of third-party monitoring for sensitive projects and establishing a framework with interested donors to ensure transparency.

In a statement on Monday, the UN secretary-general’s spokesperson said the UN chief accepts the Colonna report recommendations.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini, who has warned that Israel is waging a concerted campaign aimed at destroying UNRWA, also welcomed the report’s findings and recommendations.


Right of return

Over 760,000 Palestinians have fled, driven forcibly from their homes in what is referred to by Palestinians as the "Nakba" (catastrophe in Arabic).

Around 180,000 have fled to Gaza, with the rest scattered across the West Bank and neighbouring Arab countries, specifically Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

In 1949, the United Nations set up the UNRWA to provide them and their descendants, who also have refugee status, with basic services, including health and education.

Israel has been systematically targeting UNRWA for years, undermining its mission, calling for ending the definition of Palestinian refugees, and persistently rejecting their "right of return," which was backed by the UN in Resolution 194.

More than two-thirds of the 2.4 million people living in Gaza are registered refugees.

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