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‘Farce, desperate scheme to save UNRWA,’ critics slam UN review of its agency’s neutrality

Two of the groups the United Nations tapped to investigate its embattled Palestinian refugee agency praised South Africa’s genocide charges against the Jewish state.

António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, meets with Queen Maxima of the Netherlands at U.N. headquarters in New York on Jan. 11, 2024. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.
António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, meets with Queen Maxima of the Netherlands at U.N. headquarters in New York on Jan. 11, 2024. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

Following allegations that a dozen employees of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East participated directly in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, the United States and other nations announced their suspension of future funds, pending an investigation. The United Nations has said that the actions of a few shouldn’t tarnish an otherwise essential aid organization—a sentiment that White House officials have echoed at times while emphasizing the seriousness of the charges.

There has been less attention to a separate investigation of UNRWA, which predates the announcement of the allegations that agency employees participated in the terror attacks. The United Nations has assembled an ostensibly independent panel to assess whether UNRWA is acting in a neutral manner and in response to “allegations of serious breaches.”

António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general, announced the investigation on Monday in response to a request from Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general, to probe allegations that his agency teaches hateful curricula in its schools. UNRWA is also accused of aligning closely with Gazan terror schools and failing to punish its employees who promote and glorify terrorism.

The new “review group,” which will operate parallel to an internal U.N. investigation, is helmed by Catherine Colonna, former French foreign minister. Two of the three European research organizations with which she will work have praised South Africa’s genocide charges against Israel at the International Court of Justice, the principal U.N. judicial arm located in The Hague.

Both the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights presented the ICJ case in a positive light, while the third group, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, a Lund University affiliate, in Sweden, has not.

“By bringing Israel before the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest court, with the objective of putting an end to the ongoing massacres in Gaza—while the West continues to side with and provide military supplies to the oppressor—South Africa (with the support of its partners, all of which are exclusively from the global South) is challenging the west’s moral high ground and exposing its double standards,” per a blog post co-written by a research staff member at the Norwegian group CMI, which promotes the item atop its homepage.

CMI, which is now being positioned as a neutral arbiter on anti-Israel bias at UNRWA, further referred to the “suffocation of Palestinians” that “prepared the ground for genocidal acts to take place.” It adds, “the massacre or the suffering of the ‘civilized’ is considered as more tragic than the massacre or the suffering of ‘others,’” apparently criticizing distinctions between Hamas’s attack on civilians and Israel’s subsequent war of self-defense against a terror organization.

South Africa’s genocide case “marks a historic breakthrough and progress for international law,” according to a post that the Danish Institute for Human Rights promotes on its homepage.

On Nov. 6, Louise Holck, president of the Danish Institute, delivered a speech in which she referred to a Russian soldier who stripped a 75-year-old woman and strangled and raped her after she refused to undress. She lost several teeth and broke several ribs, Holck said.

The institute president then suggested that Israeli soldiers could do the same, without mentioning that Hamas terrorists had raped and killed Israeli women.

“This incident took place in Ukraine, and the perpetrator was Russian,” she said. “However, such incidents could occur in many places in the world today. While bombs are falling in Ukraine and Gaza, statistic [sic] from the U.N. reveal that we are seeing a higher number of armed conflicts than at any other time since World War II. From Gaza to Gabon, Ukraine to Yemen, Myanmar to Mali, Armenia to Afghanistan we see how armed conflicts, coups and authoritarian tendencies are resulting in torture, degrading treatment of civilians, and other gross human rights abuses and war crimes.”

The Wallenberg Institute, which does not appear to have commented on the Oct. 7 attacks at all, issued a statement on Jan. 27—International Holocaust Remembrance Day—that universalized the Holocaust and referred to “all the tragedies in conflicts and genocides worldwide.” It did not refer specifically to Hamas’s attack, which was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. (On Oct. 7, the institute posted on X only about one of its staff members focused on “non-discrimination and inclusion.”)

Philippe Lazzarini
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), during a visit to the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

‘Tainted from the start’

Two experts told JNS that they are highly skeptical of the neutrality of the new panel tasked with investigating the U.N. agency’s neutrality. 

“This is a farce, a desperate scheme to save UNRWA,” said Rich Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who, in part, studies international organizations.

“The United Nations does not recognize Hamas or Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations, and this secretary-general has proven himself biased against Israel,” Goldberg told JNS. “UNRWA’s time has come to an end. The only reform that will protect U.S. taxpayers is ending UNRWA.”

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch whose exposé of a Telegram channel for UNRWA teachers appeared to finally push Lazzarini into calling for outside help, said that the new investigation is “tainted from the start.” 

Lazzarini has already said that allegations against UNRWA amount to a “smear campaign,” Neuer noted.

‘Serious breaches’

The new review group’s articulated aim 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 panel, which begins its work on Feb. 14, is expected to file an interim report to Guterres in late March, with the final report completed in April. The United Nations will publish the final report, it states.

The report will “make recommendations for the improvement and strengthening, if necessary, of the mechanisms and procedures that are currently in place or for the creation of new and alternative mechanisms and procedures that would be better fit for purpose, taking into account the particular operational, political and security context in which the agency works,” the United Nations announced.

“This independent external review will take place in parallel with an investigation currently underway by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services into allegations of the involvement of 12 UNRWA personnel in the Oct. 7 attacks,” the international body added. “The cooperation of the Israeli authorities, who made these allegations, will be critical to the success of the investigation.”

“Congratulations to the United Nations on forming the investigative committee. We will submit all evidence highlighting UNRWA’s ties to terrorism and its harmful effects on regional stability,” wrote Israel Katz, Israel’s foreign minister. “It is imperative that this committee brings the truth to light, necessitating the immediate resignation of the UNRWA chairman Philippe Lazzarini.”

Colonna, who is leading the new review of UNRWA’s neutrality, praised UNRWA during a Jan. 12 meeting with Lazzarini, writing in French that she gives him her “full renewed support” and calling his work “more useful than ever.”

The Wall Street Journal has reported that an Israel-produced dossier indicates that some 10% of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff members in Gaza have ties to Palestinian terror organizations. Some 190 UNRWA employees, including teachers, double as Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists, per a Reuters report on the dossier.

The Israeli mission to the United Nations did not offer a comment at press time.

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee will vote on Tuesday on whether to bar more U.S. funding for UNRWA. 

Several members of Congress have called for Lazzarini and Guterres to resign.

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