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Review identifies 'neutrality-related issues' in UN agency for Palestinians

Ismail Wahba, director of the UNRWA Taif School in Rafah, teaches an English class in the library of a school housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah
— United Nations (United States) (AFP)

An independent review group on the UN agency for Palestinians found "neutrality-related issues" but noted Israel had yet to provide evidence for allegations that a significant number of its staff were members of terrorist organizations.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) remains "irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians' human and economic development," added the report, which was headed by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna.

The review group was created following allegations made by Israel in January that 12 UNRWA staff may have participated in the October 7, 2023, Hamas attacks. In the weeks that followed, numerous donor states suspended or paused some $450 million in funding.

Many have since resumed funding, including Sweden, Canada, Japan, the EU, France and more -- while others, including the United States and Britain -- have not. Congress passed a law last month preventing the US from funding UNRWA until March 2025.

Those pauses to the main aid organ in Gaza come as months of Israeli military operations have turned the territory into a "humanitarian hellscape," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guteres said recently, with its 2.3 million people in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medicine.

Colonna's team was tasked with assessing whether UNRWA was "doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality," while Guterres activated a second investigation to probe Israel's allegations.

The review noted that "neutrality-related issues persist," including instances of staff sharing biased political posts on social media and the use of a small number of textbooks with "problematic content" in some UNRWA schools.

But it added "Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence" for a recent claim that UNRWA employs more than 400 "terrorists."

"Most alleged neutrality breaches relate to social media posts" which often follow incidents of violence affecting colleagues or relatives, the review found.

"One preventive action could be to ensure that personnel are given space to discuss these traumatic incidents," added the report, which was co-authored with three Nordic rights groups.

The report praised the progress made by UNRWA in preventing biased texts from being used in its schools, which are critical to educating hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children.

But it cited a recent assessment that found 3.85 percent of textbook pages contained content of concern.

These included "the use of historical maps in a non-historical context, e.g. without labeling Israel" referring to Israel as the "Zionist occupation" and "naming Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine."

The authors also identified concerns over the politicization of staff unions, which have "resisted management disciplinary actions" including on neutrality, and are male-dominated, despite the agency itself being gender-balanced.

They offered a number of recommendations including expanding the review of school texts and enhancing transparency with donors in order to tackle the trust deficit.

But dismantling UNRWA, as sought by Israel, would accelerate Gaza's slide into famine and doom generations of children to despair, the organization's head Philippe Lazzarini warned last week.

UNRWA began operations in 1950 and provides services to nearly 6 million people across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.