Israel yet to prove UNRWA staff are terrorists

Israel has not yet proved UNRWA staff are members of terrorist organisations, a report has found.

Israel has not yet proved UNRWA staff are members of terrorist organisations, a report has found. Photo: EPA

Israel has yet to provide evidence for its accusations that hundreds of staff with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) are members of terrorist groups, according to a review of the agency’s neutrality that could prompt some donor countries to review funding freezes.

The United Nations appointed former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to lead the UNRWA review of UNRWA’s ability to ensure neutrality and respond to allegations of breaches in February after Israel accused 12 UNRWA staff took part in the Hamas-led October 7 attacks which triggered the Gaza war.

A separate investigation by internal UN investigators is looking into the Israeli allegations against the 12 UNRWA staff. The UN said last week that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has had “a number of meetings and cooperation from the Israeli authorities on this.”

UNRWA provides education, health and aid to millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The review said UNRWA shares staff lists annually with the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

On Monday, the review said Israel had not raised any concerns with UNRWA, based on those staff lists, since 2011. Then in March 2024, “Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations.”

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

Israel stepped up its accusations in March, saying over 450 UNRWA staff were military operatives in Gaza terrorist groups. UNRWA employs 32,000 people across its area of operations, 13,000 of them in Gaza.

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oren Marmorstein accused more than 2135 UNRWA workers of being members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He said the Colonna review of UNRWA was insufficient and an “effort to avoid the problem and not address it head on.”

“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,” he said, adding that Israel calls on donors not to give money to UNRWA in Gaza and instead to fund other humanitarian organisations in the enclave.

Colonna told reporters she had good relations with Israel during the review but was not surprised by the Israeli response. She said she had appealed to Israel to “please take it on board, whatever we recommend – if implemented – will bring good.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has accepted the recommendations, his spokesperson said, calling on all countries to actively support UNRWA as it is “a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region.”

Israel has long complained about the agency, founded in 1949 to care for Palestinian refugees. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for UNRWA to be shut down, saying it seeks to preserve the issue of Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA says it terminated the contracts of 10 of the 12 staff accused by Israel of involvement in the October 7 attacks, and that the other two are dead.

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