European Commission calls for independent investigation of UN refugee agency

European Commission calls for independent investigation of UN refugee agency
UNRWA school in Gaza, credit: UNRWA

The Commission issued on Monday a strongly worded statement on the recent allegations that staff employed by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, has been involved in Hamas’ terrorist attack on 7 October.

The Commission says in the statement that it will determine upcoming funding decisions for UNRWA in light of the “very serious allegations made on 24 January relating to the involvement of UNRWA staff in the heinous 7 October attacks”.

Intelligence information from Israel has identified 12 UNRWA employees who participated in the attack. The agency seemed to have accepted the information. On Friday, it said that it had sacked several employees. “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” said UNRWA’s Commissioner – General Philippe Lazzarini.

The EU is one of the largest donors of humanitarian and development aid to Palestinians in Gaza. Humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will continue unabated through partner organisations. Currently, no additional EU funding to UNRWA is foreseen until the end of February.

Besides the Commission, the US, UK, Australia, Japan and a number of EU member states (Austria, Finland, Germany, France, and Italy) have also announced that they will suspend additional funding to UNRWA.

The Commission will review the matter in light of the outcome of the investigation announced by the UN and the actions it will take. It also expects UNRWA to agree to carrying out an audit of the agency to be conducted by EU appointed independent external experts, focusing specifically on the control systems needed to prevent the possible involvement of its staff in terrorist activities.

Finally, a review of all UNRWA staff should be launched soonest to confirm that they did not participate in the attacks.  The allegations are embarrassing for UNRWA which employs several thousand local staff in providing assistance and social services to the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip.

At the recent EU foreign affairs council meeting (22 January), the ministers agreed to continue supporting to UNRWA. It was established in 1949 with a mandate to provide assistance and social services to registered Palestine refugees and their descendants. EU’s chief spokesperson said on Monday that the allegations against URNWA were not known by the council.

Hamas has been accused of having built a tunnel network under UNRWRA’s facilities and misusing them for its military operations, storing weapons and hiding the Israeli hostages taken on 7 October.  Many of UNRWA’s schools and hospitals, where the civilian Palestinian population had taken shelter, have been destroyed or stopped functioning during the war.

Already in 2017, UNRWA protested against Hamas tunnels passing under its schools. An UNRWA director responsible for its operations in Gaza said that it was unacceptable that students and staff were placed at risk in such a way and that it violated international law.

Unrelated to the investigation of UNRWA, Israel was instructed on Friday by the International Court of Justice “to take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and to allow humanitarian access for the Palestinian people."

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