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‘Absolutely necessary’ to meet with Israeli officials, says UNRWA review head

The former French foreign minister leading the review aims to report back on UNRWA’s neutrality, but critics are calling the investigation a “farce.”

Catherine Colonna, French minister of foreign affairs, at a press event at U.N. Headquarters on Sept. 22, 2022. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.
Catherine Colonna, French minister of foreign affairs, at a press event at U.N. Headquarters on Sept. 22, 2022. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

The head of a U.N.-commissioned group reviewing UNRWA’s neutrality, or lack thereof, said on Thursday that it is “absolutely necessary to meet with Israeli officials,” as well as Palestinian authorities, as the panel carries out its work.

Catherine Colonna, a former French foreign minister, addressed reporters shortly after meeting with António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general.

The review group she is helming is the result of a request from Philippe Lazzarini, the embattled commissioner-general of UNRWA, the Palestinian-only refugee and social services agency long accused of ties to Hamas and of ignoring the terror group’s use of U.N. facilities in Gaza for its military operations.

Critics have called the review group a “farce” and a “desperate scheme” to save UNRWA, which is under dire financial pressure following the suspension of aid by 16 countries. The suspension came following allegations that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre. 

Subsequent reporting has suggested that about 10% of UNRWA’s staff has ties to Palestinian terror.

Colonna’s review is operating parallel to a separate U.N. investigation into the allegations. She said on Thursday that she does not intend to communicate with the U.N.’s investigative agency.

One of three research agencies participating in Colonna’s review already authored a report in 2022 exonerating UNRWA from accusations lodged against it over the years, blaming “misunderstandings” and “unfounded claims.”

The 2022 report also claimed that demands by UNRWA donor countries to maintain the agency’s neutrality “may also be deeply problematic, since the line between neutral and political is difficult to draw.”

“What the independent review group will do is investigate UNRWA and how it works with neutrality, as it must,” Colonna said on Thursday. 

“We will specifically clarify the mechanisms, the process in place, the structures, and see if they ensure neutrality as they should, to the best of the power within UNRWA,” she said. “We also will look at how they’ve been implemented in practice.”

The review group is to issue an initial report to Guterres by March 21. A final report, which the United Nations said will be made public, is due by April 20. Colonna  intends for the report to include recommendations, she said on Thursday.

She added that she has not requested Israeli cooperation with the group’s work but that earlier this week, she requested a meeting with Israeli government officials.

“I have no reason to believe that there would not be such cooperation,” Colonna said.

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