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Israel's allegations against UNRWA lack substantiation: Independent review group

On Monday, an independent review group revealed that Israel has not yet provided evidence to support its terror-link allegations against personnel of the UN Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA).

Anadolu Agency MIDDLE EAST
Published April 22,2024

"Israel has yet to provide evidence" for its terror-link allegations against personnel of the UN Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA), an independent review group revealed Monday.

A report, conducted by the Independent Investigative Group, involved extensive field visits and engagement with various stakeholders across regions of operation.

The group led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna commenced its work on Feb. 13, and shed light on the investigation into UNRWA's adherence to the principle of neutrality.

Saying that UNRWA has implemented numerous mechanisms and procedures to uphold humanitarian principles, the report particularly emphasized the agency's neutrality.

With approximately 32,000 personnel, of whom 0.8% are international and 99.2% are local staff, the report said that the agency's approach to neutrality was found to be more developed compared to similar international organizations.

The investigation included field visits to UNRWA headquarters in Amman, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, as well as engagements with UNRWA officials, donor countries, host countries, and UN agencies.

The group conducted more than 200 meetings and interviews with representatives from 47 countries and organizations.

It highlights the challenging operational environment UNRWA operates in, amidst "recurring conflicts, violence, a lack of political progress, poor socioeconomic conditions and the proliferation of armed groups."

Addressing the allegations by Israel regarding UNRWA employees' alleged ties to terrorist organizations, the report noted the absence of supporting evidence.

"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. However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this," it said.

In response to the allegations, several UN member state donors suspended or paused funding, amounting to approximately $450 million, the report said, adding that initiatives undertaken by UNRWA have led to the resumption of funding from some states.

Emphasizing the importance of reinforcing UNRWA's existing neutrality mechanisms and procedures, the report said: "Member States requested more information on what had occurred as well as a reinforcement of UNRWA's existing neutrality mechanisms and procedures, including staff vetting and oversight."

Stating that UNRWA maintains a vetting system to screen staff and personnel, with regular sharing of staff lists with host countries and Israel, the report said, despite these measures, "the Israeli Government has not informed UNRWA of any concerns relating to any UNRWA staff based on these staff lists since 2011."

The findings underscore the critical role UNRWA plays in delivering essential humanitarian aid and social services amidst ongoing conflicts and challenging socio-political contexts.

"In the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA remains pivotal in providing life-saving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank," it added.

In a written statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the recommendations made by Colonna, the head of the Independent Investigative Group.

"He (Guterres) has agreed with Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini that UNRWA, with the Secretary-General's support, will establish an action plan to implement the recommendations contained in the Final Report," a statement said.

The UN chief also expressed confidence in the collaboration of donors and host countries to support UNRWA, which is a vital lifeline for Palestinians in the region.

UNRWA has been hindered from doing its job since January when Israel accused a handful of its thousands of employees of being involved in the Hamas attacks on Israel.

Amid a probe of the claims, several countries have cut off funding to the agency, and its aid work for Gaza's famine-stricken population has suffered.

At least 18 countries initially suspended funding to the agency amid the allegations.

UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly more than 70 years ago to assist Palestinians who were forcibly displaced from their land.

The agency provides crucial support to millions of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other areas where large numbers of registered Palestinians live.