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UN launches review of UNRWA ‘neutrality’ over allegations of staff ties to Hamas

The United Nations on Monday announced it had appointed an independent review group to investigate concerns that the U.N. body responsible for Palestinian refugees is compromised over ties to terrorist groups, in particular Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The review is aimed at analyzing the policy of “neutrality” for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), following allegations that 12 of its staff operating in Gaza participated in Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel. A separate investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services is being carried out related to the allegations against the 12 staff members.

The U.N. has appointed former French Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna to work with three organizations to conduct the review of UNRWA, the U.N. body assisting Palestinian refugees across the Middle East that is viewed as a critical agency in the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations review group will begin its investigation on Feb. 14 and is expected to submit an interim report to the U.N. secretary-general by late March, with a final, public report expected to be completed by April.

The U.N. said that the investigation will review UNRWA’s policy to ensure “neutrality and to respond to allegations or information indicating that the principle may have been breached.”

The three organizations working under Colonna include human rights organizations and those specializing in humanitarian law, including the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Supporters of UNRWA say that the 12 employees accused of working with Hamas represent a small fraction of the estimated 13,000 employees in Gaza, but Israel reportedly alleges that at least 10 percent of the agency’s staff has ties to Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Israel, the U.S. and several European countries.

The U.S. and at least eight other countries have suspended funding for UNRWA in the wake of the allegations of employees’ participation in Hamas’s attacks, drawing support from agency critics who view the organization as contributing to antisemitism and hatred of Israel as well as redundant for operating outside the United Nations main body for refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But UNRWA’s supporters say the agency is a critical player in providing humanitarian assistance amid the humanitarian catastrophe resulting from Israel’s retaliatory war against Hamas. UNRWA helps provide food, shelter and medical assistance to nearly 2 million people in crisis.

State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel welcomed the U.N. launching the independent review, saying the U.S. looks forward to seeing concrete results on how UNRWA ensures neutrality and responds to the breach of its policy.

“Meanwhile, we’re going to continue to consult closely with other donors on how to continue to meet urgent humanitarian needs in Gaza … we will redirect funding for UNRWA to other partners to provide assistance in Gaza,” Patel said.

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