UN says to probe Palestinian refugee agency for ‘neutrality’

The United Nations has announced it will investigate its own agency for Palestinian refugees to ensure “neutrality” following allegations by Israel that several UN staffers assisted Hamas’ October 7 military operation against Israel.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced the move in a statement on Monday, saying he had established an “independent review group” to probe “allegations of serious breaches” at the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The UN chief stated the probe would seek to “identify the mechanisms and procedures that the Agency currently has in place to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations or information indicating that the principle may have been breached”.

Though Guterres stopped short of outlining the alleged breaches, Israeli officials have repeatedly accused 12 UNRWA workers of involvement in last year’s Hamas attack, which killed around 1,200 people in Israel and saw nearly 250 taken hostage by Palestinian fighters.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz later hailed the decision, saying “We will submit all evidence highlighting UNRWA’s ties to terrorism and its harmful effects on regional stability”.

Guterres previously acknowledged that nine of the 12 UN staffers allegedly linked to Hamas had been fired, two remained unidentified and another had since been killed. Though the Israeli allegations have yet to be independently confirmed, more than a dozen countries have already opted to cut off funding to the refugee agency amid the controversy, including the United States, Sweden, Britain and Germany.

Last week, a spokesman for the US State Department stated that $300,000 set aside for UNRWA would be withheld pending the results of the investigation. Around $121 million had already been distributed to the agency since October 1, as Washington typically devotes up to $400 million to the office each year.

While the review panel will focus on UNRWA’s “neutrality”, Guterres noted that a separate investigation into Israel’s charges would continue under the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. He also went on to stress the agency’s critical role in Gaza, adding that more than 2 million people “depend on it for their survival amidst one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world”.

Israel’s ongoing military response to the October 7 attack has claimed more than 27,000 lives in Gaza, according to local Hamas-run health officials. The UN has warned of looming calamity in the Palestinian enclave, where hundreds of thousands have been displaced and face extreme shortages of food, medicine and other essentials. In a statement on Monday, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned that Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas” could “amount to war crimes”, and pointed to a “public – and mental – health disaster” in the making in Gaza.

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