Report says Israel has not provided evidence of widespread militancy among UNRWA staff

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JERUSALEM — Israel has not provided evidence that significant numbers of workers with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees are tied to militant groups, but the agency must implement more robust vetting of staff members to ensure neutrality and work to reestablish trust with donors, a highly anticipated report said Monday.

Based on an examination of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s screening procedures, code of ethics, management structure, staff training and other practices, the independent review group concluded that the agency has “established and updated a significant number of policies, mechanisms and procedures” to uphold neutrality in recent years but is in need of critical reforms.

Former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, who led the review group, called the agency “indispensable and irreplaceable” in a news conference Monday. “As we speak, at this critical time, UNRWA has a vital role in the humanitarian response in Gaza,” she added.

The U.N. General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel and continues to serve more than 5 million people across Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The findings released Monday will largely come as a relief to the embattled agency, which was pitched into an existential crisis in January after Israel alleged that a dozen of its 13,000 employees in Gaza participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks and that more than 10 percent had ties to militant groups. Sixteen major donors, including the United States, promptly suspended funding worth about $450 million, nearly half of UNRWA’s budget for the year.

Colonna and a trio of Scandinavian research institutions did not examine the Oct. 7 accusations; those claims are being probed separately by investigators from the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is expected to release its own report later this year.

In some ways, though, this was the higher-stakes investigation: Several major donors, including Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, have said their future funding for the agency rests on assessments of its neutrality. Without a new influx of cash, UNRWA has said it will run out of money at the end of June.

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini immediately fired the 12 staff members accused of taking part in the Hamas-led attacks — a sign, he said, of how seriously the agency took the allegations. But Israel — long opposed to an agency that it sees as perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue and stoking antisemitism — has continued to call for UNRWA to be disbanded.

Responding to the report Monday, Israel alleged — without evidence — that more than 2,135 UNRWA workers belong to either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that “one-fifth of UNRWA school administrators are Hamas members.”

“The Colonna report ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of Hamas’ infiltration of UNRWA,” said the statement from Oren Marmorstein, a spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres established the independent review group in February “to assess whether the Agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made.”

The group spoke with more than 200 people, including senior UNRWA leaders across the region and officials from donor states, host countries, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, during its nine-week review.

Its final report outlined a variety of measures, including staff training and investigation procedures, that the agency has taken to maintain neutrality and discipline employees who violate humanitarian principles. It also said UNRWA has mechanisms in place to prevent its facilities from being misused for political or military purposes, though it called for more regular inspections.

On staff vetting, the report said UNRWA shares staff lists annually with host countries and with Israel for East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. The United States also receives the lists upon request. These states are then responsible for raising any red flags — but Israel had not done so since 2011, the report said.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry informed the group that it had received staff lists without Palestinian identification numbers before March of this year.

“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 said. “However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this.”

Colonna emphasized Monday that Israel cooperated with her team and that it was not within her mandate to examine evidence against individual employees in connection with Oct. 7. That was “a separate mission,” she told reporters.

UNRWA screens all workers biannually against the U.N. sanctions list. But the list is “limited to a small number of individuals, and UNRWA lacks the support of intelligence services to undertake efficient and comprehensive vetting.”

UNRWA has already agreed to provide donors with lists of its employees, including ID card information, every quarter. The report called on host countries and Israel to screen staff and share any concerns.

The group also examined Israeli allegations that UNRWA-run schools rely on educational materials that deny Israel’s right to exist and glorify violent resistance. Colonna’s team said UNRWA has taken steps to purge politicized material from Palestinian Authority textbooks, noting that a review last year found a “small fraction” of textbook pages contain objectionable content.

“Even if marginal, these issues constitute a grave violation of neutrality,” the report said, urging UNRWA to audit the content of learning materials with Israeli and other authorities.

Across the board, lack of funding significantly hampers the organization’s efforts to uphold neutrality, the group found.

UNRWA is unique in the U.N. ecosystem because it provides basic services to a specific population and draws most of its 32,000 employees from the pool of Palestinian refugees it serves. Staff are “living the occupation,” which creates both valuable expertise and challenges to ensuring neutrality, Adam Bouloukos, UNRWA’s West Bank director, said in an interview last month.

“Neutrality breaches by UNRWA personnel often take the form of social media posts, particularly following incidents of violence affecting colleagues or relatives,” the report said, recommending that the agency do more to create space for workers to discuss traumatic events.

Still, agency policy — as outlined by the review group — requires that employees show neutrality at all times or risk disciplinary measures. UNRWA vehemently rejects accusations that it is widely infiltrated by Hamas or is complicit in militant activity. It says Israel has still not provided detailed evidence to back up its allegations.

The U.S. intelligence community did not doubt, but could not verify, the Israeli claims about UNRWA workers on Oct. 7, officials told The Washington Post in February, citing a lack of independent information.

A Post analysis found that the face and vehicle of a man who was captured in CCTV footage from Kibbutz Beeri on Oct. 7 dragging the limp body of an Israeli man into a car appeared to match that of Faisal Ali Musalam Naami, 45, an UNRWA social worker identified by Israel as a participant in the attacks. Otherwise, The Post has been unable to independently verify the Israeli allegations.

UNRWA, meanwhile, said this month that Palestinian staff detained by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza had been subjected to mistreatment in Israeli custody and were “pressured during interrogations to make forced confessions against the Agency.”

“The IDF acts in accordance with Israeli and international law in order to protect the rights of the detainees held in the detention and questioning facilities,” the IDF said in a statement to The Post.

On top of funding challenges, the agency says, Israel has repeatedly hit its facilities in Gaza and restricted its access to the north. Lazzarini told the U.N. Security Council last week that 178 UNRWA workers have been killed since the start of the war, and called for an investigation.

West Bank staff say they have faced increased harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers. In East Jerusalem, Israeli politicians are seeking to evict UNRWA from its headquarters.

“The time has come to defund UNRWA,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council last week.

Despite the hard-line rhetoric, some Israeli officials quietly acknowledge that they have no viable alternative to the agency, especially with Gaza in the throes of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with more than 2 million people at risk of famine.

UNRWA is “the backbone of the humanitarian operation” in Gaza, Lazzarini told the Security Council last week, making a desperate pitch for member states to support an agency “under enormous strain.”

Most major donors have restored funding since January. But U.S. contributions — which at $422 million in 2023 dwarfed those of the next largest donors — are on hold until March 2025, after Republicans in Congress tacked a year-long funding ban onto a government spending package last month.

But the Biden administration has encouraged other countries to continue funding. “UNRWA has, simply by virtue of its size and assets, an indispensable role” in Gaza and elsewhere in providing for Palestinians, a senior U.S. official said.

While “involvement and engagement of UNRWA staff in any of the activities of Hamas is to us unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated, we do not make the assertion,” as Israel has, that “‘Hamas is UNRWA.’ We think that is simply incorrect on its face,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Guterres accepted the report’s recommendations and agreed with Lazzarini that UNRWA will “establish an action plan” to implement them, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement Monday.

Reforming the agency is a “shared responsibility” that countries around the world must support, Colonna said.

Karen DeYoung in Washington, Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Alon Rom in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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