UN chief appoints independent panel to assess UNRWA

Panel to be led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who will work with European research organisations.

Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. - At least 12 countries -- with top donors the United States and Germany joined by New Zealand on January 30 -- have suspended their funding to UNRWA over Israeli claims that some of its staff members were involved in the October 7 attack. (Photo by AFP)
Palestinians in Rafah in southern Gaza demonstrate for continued international support for UNRWA [AFP]

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has announced the creation of an independent panel to assess the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The aid agency has been under fire over accusations by Israel that 12 of its staff members were involved in the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7.

More than a dozen countries – including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and Sweden – have suspended funding to the agency.

The independent panel will be led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who will work with three European research organisations, the UN said in a statement.

The goal of the investigation is 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 European research groups working on the independent assessment are the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The panel is due to submit an interim report to Guterres in late March and a final one in late April with, if necessary, recommendations for “improvement and strengthening” of the agency’s mechanisms.

This assessment is separate from an internal probe that the UN launched last month after the accusations were first made against the 12 UNRWA employees.

The October 7 attacks by Hamas resulted in the deaths of 1,139 people, mostly civilians, according to an Al Jazeera tally based on official Israeli figures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that the UN agency has been “totally infiltrated” by Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said he was looking forward to the findings of the review group.

“I welcome the appointment by UN Secretary-General of an independent review group to assess how UNRWA ensures neutrality and responds to allegations of serious breaches. I look forward to the conclusion & recommendations of the report which will be made public,” Lazzarini said in a social media post.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Monday that his government has evidence linking the agency to “terrorism” that it plans to submit to the UN panel.

“We will submit all evidence highlighting UNRWA’s ties to terrorism and its harmful effects on regional stability. It is imperative that this committee brings the truth to light,” Katz wrote on the social media platform X.

An Israeli intelligence dossier alleged about 190 UNRWA employees, including teachers, have doubled as Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters, the Reuters news agency reported.

Palestinian officials have accused Israel of falsifying information to tarnish UNRWA. The UN fired nine of the accused workers, condemned “the abhorrent alleged acts” and launched an investigation into the allegations.

Lazzarini is visiting three Gulf states this week to drum up support after donors suspended funding to the agency. It warned last week that it might be forced to shut down its operations by the end of February if funding does not resume.

Lazzarini said on X he met with the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Monday to discuss UNRWA’s work in “preserving the stability in the region” and delivering aid to two million people in Gaza.

Spokesperson Juliette Touma told Reuters news agency that Lazzarini would visit Qatar and Kuwait later this week.

“We are hoping those that paused [funding] will reconsider and others will step forward as well,” she said.

Kuwait and Qatar rank 19th and 20th in UNRWA’s list of top 20 donors, giving $12m and $10.5m respectively in 2022. The UAE was not listed.

Meanwhile, Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, said his government will give 3.5m euros ($3.8m) to the agency to help it maintain its activities in the short term.

Touma, however, noted that it was not nearly enough to offset the gap estimated at about $440m.

Promising to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a devastating bombardment and ground assault on Gaza, killing at least 27,478 people, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian authorities.

More than 80 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced and vast swathes of the territory have been reduced to rubble during the Israeli campaign.

Source: News Agencies