UNRWA has robust neutrality steps, Israel yet to back up claims, review says

A review of the UN 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 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 terrorist organizations.

The United Nations 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 October 7 attacks, which triggered the Gaza war.

Israel stepped up its accusations in March, saying over 450 UNRWA staff were military operatives in Gaza terrorist groups.

Israel’s mission to the UN did not immediately respond to a 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.

Reuters reviewed a copy of the Colonna-led review’s final report before it was made public.

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

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,” it said.

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.

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.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini in March warned of “a deliberate and concerted campaign” to end its operations.

Israel launched its assault in Gaza after Hamas fighters rampaged through Israeli towns on October 7, killing 1,200 people according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people according to Gaza health authorities.

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

UNRWA employs 32,000 people across its area of operations, 13,000 of them in Gaza.

Political views, textbooks

UNRWA shares staff lists annually with Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Israel, the review said.

It 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.”

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

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