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ConflictsMiddle East

UNRWA: Review finds 'neutrality' issues, no terror proof

April 23, 2024

A review of the UN agency's neutrality was prompted by Israeli accusations that aid workers in Gaza were "terrorists." An independent panel says Israel provided no evidence to back the claim.

A destroyed UNRWA school building in Gaza
UNRWA, which has helped Palestinian refugees since 1949, is itself in desperate need of assistance nowImage: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/picture alliance

An independent panel called on Monday for "immediate improvement" to maintain neutrality by  the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The assessment was ordered after Israel claimed 12 UNRWA aid workers may have participated in the October 7 terror attack on southern Israel.

French diplomat Catherine Colonna, who headed the review, said that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had appointed the panel to specifically assess UNRWA's neutrality, not the allegations against the 12 workers.

Guterres ordered a separate investigation by an internal UN watchdog to follow up on Israel's accusations.

What are the findings of the UNRWA review?

The 54-page report identified "neutrality-related issues" in the implementation of the "robust" procedures UNRWA has in place to "ensure compliance with the humanitarian principles of neutrality."

It cited public political statements by staff, "problematic content" in school textbooks and the politicization of staff unions as further concerns. 

"Most alleged breaches of neutrality relate to social media posts," read the review, noting that these were often posted in the wake of violent incidents that had affected those individuals' colleagues or family.

Other challenges, the review found, stemmed from the scale of Gaza operations and the fact that most personnel were at the same time locals receiving UNRWA assistance.

The report pointed to progress in UNRWA's ability to rid its schools of biased textbooks. Still, nearly 4% of textbooks contained statements referring to Israel as the "Zionist occupation," or Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

The panel made recommendations to improve neutrality, including through engagement with donors, neutrality of staff and behavior, neutrality of education, and governance.

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini has already said he would accept the panel's recommendations but warned against what he said was Israel's "deliberate and concerted campaign" to break up the organization.

UNRWA claims facing a deliberate campaign to end its operations

Israel 'yet to provide evidence' to back accusations

Colonna said that Israel had not offered proof to back its claims.

"Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations. However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this," Colonna told reporters in New York.

In March, Israel claimed that some 450 UNRWA workers in Gaza were "terrorists."

The review panel said that Israel had not previously expressed concern over any of the tens of thousands of names on the UNRWA staff lists it has regularly received since 2011. UNRWA employs roughly 32,000 people, 13,000 of them in Gaza.

How did Israel respond?

Israel's Foreign Ministry called for donor countries to abandon UNRWA.

"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," said ministry spokesperson Oren Marmorstein.

"The problem with UNRWA-Gaza isn't that of a few bad apples; it is a rotten and poisonous tree whose roots are Hamas," he 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."

Hamas, the Islamist militant group ruling Gaza, is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU, the US and several Arab states. 

Accusations already prompted massive donor disruption

Israel's accusations led international donors to swiftly cap some $450 million (€422 million) in funding for UNRWA, which the panel calls "irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians' human and economic development."

Most nations have resumed donations, though some, such as the US and UK, continue to keep their distance.

The US — UNRWA's biggest donor, giving between $300-$400 million each year — has passed legislation locking in a pause on UNRWA funding until at least March 2025

UNRWA was founded in 1949 to aid Palestinians who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war. It currently provides services to nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA funding exit is 'collective punishment'

js/fb (AFP, AP, Reuters)