Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Israel gave no evidence UNRWA staff linked to Hamas: Report

Tel Aviv has not provided "any supporting evidence" to back up allegations that the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees employees are members of the armed groups that attacked Israel on 7 October, a review led by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna has revealed.

The Colonna report, which was commissioned by the UN to look at UNRWA’s operations and policies in the wake of Israel’s allegations and released on Monday, said Israeli authorities have not responded to letters from UNRWA in March and April requesting names and evidence in order to open an investigation.

The Israeli government, according to the independent review, “has not informed UNRWA of any concrete concerns relating to UNRWA staff since 2011”.

In late January, Israel accused 12 UNRWA employees of participating in the 7 October attack on Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and over 240 were taken back to Gaza as hostages.

As a result of the allegations, UNRWA terminated the contracts of 10 of the employees (two were confirmed dead) and 16 countries paused or froze their financial contributions to the agency, amounting to around 50 percent of the agency’s budget for the year.

Several countries that froze their contributions, including Australia, Canada and Finland, have since lifted those suspensions, with some citing a lack of evidence.

The UK government, which froze its funding, has said it would await the findings of the report before deciding whether to restore its contribution.

Meanwhile, in the US, UNRWA’s largest donor, Congress passed legislation last month that cuts off funding to the agency for the next year.

At the time the funding was cut, UNRWA stressed the decision would force the agency, the largest organisation operating in Gaza, into a dire situation with lives hanging in the balance.

In addition to its efforts in Gaza, UNRWA delivers essential services including education and healthcare to 5.9 million Palestinian refugees overall across the region, described in Colonna’s report as “indispensable”.

A UN spokesperson on Monday stated UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had accepted the review’s recommendations and called on “all stakeholders to actively support UNRWA as it is a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region”.

Israel has been pressing for UNRWA to be disbanded. At a press conference on Monday, Colonna responded to Israeli criticism of her report by saying: “We know the Israeli government has publicly strong views on UNRWA. The vast majority of the international community doesn’t share these views”.

However, she noted “really well-documented areas” where UNRWA’s neutrality position was violated, including in teaching material that she said was “antisemitic”.

Colonna also appeared to downplay the text in the report that said Israel had not provided evidence of its allegations, adding, “We have written… that UNRWA hasn’t received evidence by Israel, not that there is no evidence. That’s very different.”

While the review said it had found that since 2017, UNRWA had established and updated “a significant number” of policies and procedures to ensure its neutrality, it also offered a series of recommendations.

These include the establishment of an executive board and other governance “to support the agency’s strategic direction and external communication”.

A working group on neutrality and integrity could be set up with host countries, including Israel, invited to participate, the review suggested.

The review also notes that while UNRWA has a “due diligence duty” to ensure neutrality through both prevention and prompt investigations of alleged breaches, host countries are responsible for policing, security and intelligence in relation to UNRWA’s premises and staff.

“In particular, UNRWA does not have the permission, equipment, capacity or authority to identify people who are members of militant groups,” the review added.

“This is the responsibility of the host state. However, UNRWA has an obligation to act when made aware of such breaches of neutrality.”

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