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Report on UNRWA concludes Israel has not provided evidence of employees' militancy

Displaced Palestinians wait to receive UNRWA aid in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 7.
Mohammed Salem
/
REUTERS
Displaced Palestinians wait to receive UNRWA aid in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 7.

Israel has not provided evidence to support its accusation that a "significant" number of employees of the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip are members of terrorist organizations, according to an independent review commissioned by the United Nations.

The review, released Monday and led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, did not have a mandate to investigate Israel's more incendiaryclaim that a dozen employees of UNRWAtook part in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. A separate investigation by the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services is leading the examination of those claims.

More than a dozen international donors,including the U.S., suspended about $450 million in funding after the allegations in February. Some countries have restored funding. Congress has suspended U.S. financial support until at least March 2025.

UNRWA, formally known as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, is the main agency in Gaza providing humanitarian aid and social services — critical at a time when there are dire shortages of food, water and sanitary conditions because of the Israeli military campaign. At a press conference Monday, Colonna said UNRWA "plays an indispensable and irreplaceable role in the region."

The nine-week review she led focused on whether UNRWA was "doing everything in its power to ensure neutrality." The report found the agency had significant mechanisms in place to ensure neutrality, probably more than other U.N. organizations or agencies, which Colonna said was "a necessity considering the very difficult environment, complex and difficult situation in which they operate."

Even so, the review found there were problems, including inadequate investigations into allegations of breaches of neutrality made by UNRWA employees.

It also said there were times when UNRWA employees expressed political views and that some of its offices had been used for "political or military purposes." The report raised concerns about UNRWA schools, especially with textbooks the report said had "problematic content."

The report said UNRWA has received sustained criticism, mainly from Israel and NGOs, over the alleged presence of hate speech, incitement to violence and antisemitism in Palestinian Authority textbooks and educational supplements. Some donors have also raised significant concerns. In three international assessments of the textbooks, the report says two identified "bias and non-compliant content, but did not provide evidence of antisemitic reference." A third study identified two examples that "displayed antisemitic content" but noted that one had been removed, the other altered.

The report also raised concerns about screening UNRWA employees. According to the report, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that until earlier this year, it had received staff lists without Palestinian identification numbers.

"On the basis of the March 2024 list, which contained Palestinian ID numbers, Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations," the report says. "However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this."

The report listed a series of recommendations to improve UNRWA operations, including better training, more robust screening of employees, and a review of content of all textbooks and supplements.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.