Israel has provided no evidence linking UN workers to Hamas, Review says

Israel has provided no evidence to support its allegations that many employees of the main UN agency for Palestinian refugees are members of terrorist organizations, according to an independent study commissioned by the United Nations and published on Monday.

The review did not address Israel's allegations that a dozen employees of the agency, known as UNRWA, were involved in the Hamas-led assault on Israel on October 7. “It is a separate mission and does not fall within our mandate.” said Catherine Colonna, the former French foreign minister who led the investigation.

The review was announced in January, before Israel released claims that one in 10 of UNRWA's 13,000 employees in the Gaza Strip were members of Hamas or its ally, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that some of those employees they had taken part in the attack on 7 October. .

But by the time investigators began working on the review in early February, Israel had already made those allegations, giving the investigation additional significance.

Speaking at a news conference at United Nations headquarters in New York on Monday, Colonna said she wanted to be “very clear” that the question of involvement in October 7 is a separate matter, which remains under internal investigation by of the United Nations.

While Israel has not produced evidence of links to Hamas and other militant groups among UNRWA workers, that does not mean there is no evidence, he noted. “It's very different,” she said.

More than a dozen countries, including the United States, have suspended funding to UNRWA in light of the allegations. The United Nations fired 10 of 12 workers blamed for the attack as it implored donor countries to restore funding at a time when the majority of Gazans depend on the group for food and shelter. It also announced an internal investigation along with an independent external review, made public on Monday.

After the Biden administration cut off funding to the agency pending the results of the investigation, Congress blocked any money to the agency for a year, until March 2025.

The Colonna's analysis said that UNRWA has long shared its employee lists with Israel, but that the Israeli government has not reported any concerns about the agency's employees since 2011.

“Israel has made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations,” the report reads. “However, Israel has yet to provide evidence to support this.”

In a statement on Monday, Oren Marmorstein, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said: “Hamas has infiltrated UNRWA so deeply that it is no longer possible to determine where UNRWA ends and Hamas begins.”

“This is not what a genuine, thorough review looks like,” he added. “This is what trying to avoid the problem and not address it directly looks like.”

Amid calls for Israel to close the agency, the UN-commissioned report states that UNRWA remains “crucial in providing life-saving humanitarian aid and essential social services,” adding that “UNRWA is irreplaceable and indispensable for human development and economic of the Palestinians. “

However, the report found that despite “robust” guidelines to ensure its neutrality, there were weaknesses in their implementation due to problems in the agency's oversight processes, its internal investigations and restrictions on its ability to prevent armed groups from using its facilities for military purposes. .

The report said the agency “does not have intelligence support to undertake an efficient and comprehensive review.”

Lack of resources slowed the agency's investigations into alleged neutrality violations, “limiting UNRWA's ability to attract, hire, train and retain adequate, experienced and qualified investigators,” the report said.

The report adds that there were instances where the agency's employees had publicly expressed political views, its schools had used textbooks with “problematic content” and some of its facilities had been used for “political or military purposes.” The report provides no details, but says neutrality violations “could include the discovery of weapons, cavities and tunnel openings, military activities or incursions.”

The review offered recommendations to protect the agency's neutrality, including additional screening and training of staff, and closer cooperation with host countries and Israel in sharing employee lists.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said Monday that Guterres accepted the report's recommendations and appealed to donors “to actively support UNRWA, as it is a lifeline for refugees Palestinians in the region”.

Among the countries that suspended payments due to Israel's accusations, several – including Canada, Japan and Australia – have resumed funding for UNRWA, citing the spiraling humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and the steps the agency has taken to improve the responsability. The United States has said it will await the results of the United Nations investigation before deciding whether to resume donations to UNRWA.

Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, told reporters Monday that the Biden administration is reviewing the U.N. report and has not yet assessed its findings.

“Certainly, we welcome the fact that the secretary-general accepted the recommendations,” Miller said, adding that the United States “has long been clear that reforms to UNRWA are needed.”

“We have always made it clear that we believe the role played by UNRWA is indispensable in providing and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance – not just in Gaza, but in the wider region,” he said. “We continue to support the work they do.”

UNRWA was created to provide aid to Palestinians across the Middle East whose families fled or were forced to leave the territories during the wars surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948. Since Hamas won Palestinian elections in Gaza in 2006 and ousted a rival faction from the enclave a year later, the group ceded many of its civilian responsibilities to UNRWA.

Israel has said UNRWA is fundamentally compromised, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for it to be shut down and replaced “with responsible international humanitarian agencies.”

Michael Levenson, Anushka Patil AND Michael Crowley contributed to the reporting.

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