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An independent review finds no evidence for Israel's claims about UNRWA and Hamas

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An independent review now says Israel has not provided evidence to support its accusation that a significant number of employees of a U.N. relief agency in the Gaza strip are members of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that attacked Israel last October. That accusation led to a loss of vital international funding for UNRWA, officially named the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, at a time when Gaza is on the brink of famine. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has been following the details of this story and joins us now. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, first of all, can you tell us a few more details about this review?

NORTHAM: Well, it was led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, and she was charged with looking into whether UNRWA was ensuring that there was no complicity with Hamas. And the review started in late January after Israel made accusations of terrorist links among UNRWA employees. And, you know, after that, more than a dozen international donors, including the U.S., suspended about $450,000,000 in funding, and, you know, that's money that's desperately needed right now. UNRWA is the main agency in Gaza providing aid and social services, and these are critical at this moment when there are dire shortages of, you know, food and water and sanitary conditions because of the Israeli military campaign. And, you know, some countries have restored funding, Germany most recently, following this latest report, but, you know, Congress has suspended U.S. financial support until at least March 2025.

RASCOE: So late January until this past week - this review took about nine weeks. What are some of the key findings?

NORTHAM: Well, the review found that, in fact, UNRWA was doing everything in his power to ensure its neutrality. However, it also found some employees had expressed political views and said critical breaches of neutrality could include the discovery of weapons and tunnels, which the agency always protests. I spoke with William Deere, and he heads UNRWA's Washington representative office, and he felt that the report was fair and balanced. Here he is here.

WILLIAM DEERE: Foreign Minister Colonna said - you know, confirmed that we actually have procedures and mechanisms in place to address neutrality better than any other U.N. agency or NGO, and that's because of the politically challenging part of the world in which we operate. But like anyone, you can do better, and hence the recommendations that she included in the report.

NORTHAM: You know, and some of the recommendations include better training, a more robust screening of employees. You know, until just recently, Israel received lists of UNRWA employees, but without Palestinian identification numbers. And then in March, the list did have ID numbers, and that's when Israel says a significant number of employees were members of terrorist organizations. But, you know, Ayesha, the report said Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of that. Israel, for its part, dismissed the findings of the review, saying it doesn't deal with the, quote, "scope of Hamas' infiltration" into UNRWA.

RASCOE: Now, this is just the first of two U.N.-commissioned reports on UNRWA. What about the other one?

NORTHAM: Right. So the other investigation is looking at Israel's claims that about a dozen UNRWA employees actually took part in the October 7 attack on Israel. That killed about 1,200 people. It's being conducted by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services. And, you know, shortly after Israel made those accusations, UNRWA terminated the contracts of 10 of those workers. Another two were confirmed dead. But no word yet on when that report is due.

RASCOE: NPR's Jackie Northam. Jackie, thank you so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.