Review of UNRWA finds Israel raised no concerns about agency staff for past 13 years

Special Review of UNRWA finds Israel raised no concerns about agency staff for past 13 years
Israel claims that at least 12 UNWRA staff participated in the Oct. 7 attacks and that they used UN vehicles (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 22 April 2024
Follow

Review of UNRWA finds Israel raised no concerns about agency staff for past 13 years

Review of UNRWA finds Israel raised no concerns about agency staff for past 13 years
  • The independent review, ordered by the UN secretary-general, adds that Israel has provided no evidence to back up allegations that 12 UNRWA workers took part in Oct. 7 attacks
  • The findings of the investigation, led by French former foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, are contained in a wide-ranging 48-page report published on Monday

NEW YORK CITY: Israeli authorities have yet to provide any evidence to back up their allegations that a dozen people who worked for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees were affiliated with terrorist groups, according to an independent review headed by the French former foreign minister, Catherine Colonna.

Her nine-week investigation began after Israel alleged in January that 12 UNRWA workers took part in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel. The investigators also found that Israel had not previously expressed concerns about any individuals named on the agency staffing lists it had been receiving since 2011.

The wide-ranging 48-page report, published on Monday and seen by Arab News, states: “In the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA remains pivotal in providing life-saving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.

“As such, UNRWA is irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development. In addition, many view UNRWA as a humanitarian lifeline.”

The agency, which provides aid and services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and throughout the region, was thrown into crisis when the Israeli allegations emerged. In response, the US, the biggest single funder of UNRWA, and several other major donors put their funding for the organization on hold. In all, 16 UN member states suspended or paused donations, while others imposed conditions, placing the future of the agency in doubt.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in consultation with UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini, ordered an independent review of the claims to evaluate the agency’s adherence to the principle of neutrality, and its response to allegations of breaches of neutrality, particularly within the challenging context of the situation in Gaza.

Guterres also initiated a separate investigation by the UN’s own Office of Internal Oversight Services to determine the accuracy of the allegations against UNRWA staff. The agency also cut its ties with the workers named by Israel.

According to the Colonna report, the amount of money withheld during the pauses in funding amounted to about $450 million. Following the actions taken by the UN in response to the Israeli allegations, several member states reinstated their funding. However, they called for further details about the events in question, and the strengthening of UNRWA mechanisms and procedures to ensure the neutrality of its workers, including its vetting and oversight of staff.

The task of the review group was to “assess whether UNRWA is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and respond to allegations of serious neutrality breaches when they are made.”

Colonna told Arab News: “We received excellent cooperation from all sides,” including the Israeli government.

Her report reiterates that “UNRWA and its staff and personnel have a fundamental obligation to maintain neutrality to ensure the integrity of the agency’s mission and the effectiveness of its operations.

“Neutrality is a UN commitment, as one of the four humanitarian principles formally adopted by the General Assembly and upheld by other UN agencies while operating in humanitarian settings. It means

that humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

The report includes more than 50 recommendations for enhancing efforts to ensure the neutrality of more than 32,000 UNRWA workers. They include improvements to internal oversight services, increased in-person training, and additional support from donor nations.

However, the review also acknowledges that existing UNRWA safeguards are already more stringent than those in place at similar organizations.

“UNRWA’s neutrality challenges differ from those of other international organizations due to the magnitude of its operations, with most personnel being locally recruited and recipients of UNRWA services,” the review notes.

Guterres said he has accepted the findings of Colonna’s report and agreed with Lazzarini that UNRWA “will establish an action plan to implement the recommendations contained in the final report.”

The spokesperson for the secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, said that Guterres “counts on the cooperation of the donor community, the host countries and the staff to fully cooperate in the implementation of the recommendations.

“Moving forward, the secretary-general appeals to all stakeholders to actively support UNRWA, as it is a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region.”

Colonna said in New York on Monday that “the international community has a responsibility in helping and supporting UNRWA in addressing neutrality issues.”

During its nine-week investigation, her group thoroughly examined the agency’s existing mechanisms and protocols for maintaining neutrality and addressing potential violations. Members of the group visited the UNRWA headquarters and its offices in Amman, Jerusalem and the West Bank, and talked to various stakeholders, including agency officials, donor states, host countries, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, other UN agencies, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.

In all, the review group met or interviewed more than 200 people, including several members of UNRWA staff in Gaza. Direct contact was made with officials from 47 countries and organizations.

The review revealed that UNRWA has in place a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with humanitarian principles, with an emphasis on neutrality, and that it had adopted a more developed approach to the issue of neutrality than many other similar UN agencies or nongovernmental organizations.

Despite these significant efforts, issues relating to the neutrality of the agency and its staff have persisted. There have been several allegations of breaches of neutrality rules and disciplinary measures were taken in response, the report noted, but none of the prior allegations were as serious as the ones made by Israeli authorities in January this year.

A common criticism leveled by Israel against UNRWA is the alleged use in schools throughout the region of Palestinian Authority textbooks that contain antisemitic material. However, international studies have found minimal evidence to substantiate this.

“Three international assessments of PA textbooks in recent years have provided a nuanced picture,” the Colonna report said. “Two identified presence of bias and antagonistic content but did not provide evidence of antisemitic content.

“The third assessment, by the Georg Eckert Institute (in Germany), studied 156 PA textbooks and identified two examples that it found to display antisemitic motifs but noted that one of them had already been removed. The other has been altered.”

A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Monday said Colonna’s report was “insufficient,” ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of the infiltration of UNRWA by Hamas.


Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea
Updated 21 min 50 sec ago
Follow

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea

Houthi missile strikes China-bound oil tanker in Red Sea
  • The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call: UKMTO
  • The incident occurred 76 nautical miles (140 kilometers) off Yemen’s Hodeidah

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s Houthi militia launched an anti-ship ballistic missile into the Red Sea on Saturday morning, striking an oil tanker traveling from Russia to China, according to US Central Command, the latest in a series of Houthi maritime strikes. 

CENTCOM said that at 1 a.m. on Saturday, a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile struck a Panamanian-flagged, Greek-owned and operated oil tanker named M/T Wind, which had just visited Russia and was on its way to China, causing “flooding which resulted in the loss of propulsion and steering.”

Slamming the Houthis for attacking ships, the US military said: “The crew of M/T Wind was able to restore propulsion and steering, and no casualties were reported. M/T Wind resumed its course under its power. This continued malign and reckless behavior by the Iranian-backed Houthis threatens regional stability and endangers the lives of mariners across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

Earlier on Saturday, two UK naval agencies said that a ship sailing in the Red Sea suffered minor damage after being hit by an item thought to be a missile launched by Yemen’s Houthi militia from an area under their control.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations, which monitors ship attacks, said on Saturday morning that it received an alarm from a ship master about an “unknown object” striking the ship’s port quarter, 98 miles south of Hodeidah, inflicting minor damage.

“The vessel and crew are safe and continuing to its next port of call,” UKMTO said in its notice about the incident, encouraging ships in the Red Sea to exercise caution and report any incidents.

Hours earlier, the same UK maritime agency stated that the assault happened 76 nautical miles northwest of Hodeidah.

Ambrey, a UK security firm, also reported receiving information regarding a missile strike on a crude oil tanker traveling under the Panama flag, around 10 nautical miles southwest of Yemen’s government-controlled town of Mokha on the Red Sea, which resulted in a fire on the ship.

The Houthis did not claim responsibility for fresh ship strikes on Saturday, although they generally do so days after the attack.

Since November, the Houthis have seized a commercial ship, sunk another, and claimed to have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles at international commercial and naval ships in the Gulf of Aden, Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and Red Sea in what the Yemeni militia claims is support for the Palestinian people.

The Houthis claim that they solely strike Israel-linked ships and those traveling or transporting products to Israel in order to pressure the latter to cease its war in Gaza.

The US responded to the Houthi attacks by branding them as terrorists, forming a coalition of marine task forces to safeguard ships, and unleashing hundreds of strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen.

Local and international environmentalists have long warned that Houthi attacks on ships carrying fuel or other chemicals might lead to an environmental calamity near Yemen’s coast.

The early warning came in February when the Houthis launched a missile that seriously damaged the MV Rubymar, a Belize-flagged and Lebanese-operated ship carrying 22,000 tonnes of ammonium phosphate-sulfate NPS fertilizer and more than 200 tonnes of fuel while cruising in the Red Sea. 

The Houthis have defied demands for de-escalation in the Red Sea and continue to organize massive rallies in regions under their control to express support for their campaign. On Friday, thousands of Houthi sympathizers took to the streets of Sanaa, Saada, and other cities under their control to show their support for the war on ships.

The Houthis shouted in unison, “We have no red line, and what’s coming is far worse,” as they raised the Palestinian and militia flags in Al-Sabeen Square on Friday, repeating their leader’s promise to intensify assaults on ships.

Meanwhile, a Yemeni government soldier was killed and another was injured on Saturday while fending off a Houthi attack on their position near the border between the provinces of Taiz and Lahj.

According to local media, the Houthis attacked the government’s Nation’s Shield Forces in the contested Hayfan district of Taiz province, attempting to capture control of additional territory.

The Houthis were forced to stop their attack after encountering tough resistance from government troops.

The attack occurred a day after the Nation’s Shield Forces sent dozens of armed vehicles and personnel to the same locations to boost their forces and repel Houthi attacks. 


Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved

Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved
Updated 5 sec ago
Follow

Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved

Israel war cabinet minister says to quit unless Gaza plan approved
  • The Israeli army has been battling Hamas militants across the Gaza Strip for more than seven months

JERUSALEM: Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said Saturday he would resign from the body unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a post-war plan for the Gaza Strip.

“The war cabinet must formulate and approve by June 8 an action plan that will lead to the realization of six strategic goals of national importance.. (or) we will be forced to resign from the government,” Gantz said, referring to his party, in a televised address directed at Netanyahu.

Gantz said the six goals included toppling Hamas, ensuring Israeli security control over the Palestinian territory and returning Israeli hostages.

“Along with maintaining Israeli security control, establish an American, European, Arab and Palestinian administration that will manage civilian affairs in the Gaza Strip and lay the foundation for a future alternative that is not Hamas or (Mahmud) Abbas,” he said, referring to the president of the Palestinian Authority.

He also urged the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia “as part of an overall move that will create an alliance with the free world and the Arab world against Iran and its affiliates.”

Netanyahu responded to Gantz’s threat on Saturday by slamming the minister’s demands as “washed-up words whose meaning is clear: the end of the war and a defeat for Israel, the abandoning of most of the hostages, leaving Hamas intact and the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

The Israeli army has been battling Hamas militants across the Gaza Strip for more than seven months.

But broad splits have emerged in the Israeli war cabinet in recent days after Hamas fighters regrouped in northern Gaza, an area where Israel previously said the group had been neutralized.

Netanyahu came under personal attack from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday for failing to rule out an Israeli government in Gaza after the war.

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s attack on October 7 on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized about 250 hostages, 124 of whom Israel estimates remain in Gaza, including 37 the military says are dead.

Israel’s military retaliation against Hamas has killed at least 35,386 people, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza’s health ministry, and an Israeli siege has brought dire food shortages and the threat of famine.


Iran to send experts to ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators

Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
Follow

Iran to send experts to ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators

Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients. (AFP file photo)
  • “Venezuela has a number of accelerators in its hospitals that have been stopped due to the embargo,” the message said

CARACAS: Iran on Saturday said it will send experts to its ally Venezuela to help with medical accelerators in hospitals it said had been stopped due to Western sanctions.
Venezuela requested Iran’s help, according to a message on the social media platform X by the Iranian government attributed to the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
“Venezuela has a number of accelerators in its hospitals that have been stopped due to the embargo,” the message said.
Medical accelerators are used in radiation treatments for cancer patients.
Venezuela is also an ally of Russia and China.
The return of US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry has made its alliance with Iran critical to keeping its lagging energy sector afloat. Washington last year temporarily relaxed sanctions on Venezuela’s promise to allow a competitive presidential election. The US now says only some conditions were met. 

 


Three Syrians missing after cargo ship sinks off Romania

Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
Follow

Three Syrians missing after cargo ship sinks off Romania

Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels. (AFP file photo)
  • Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels, while the search for the other three, “all of Syrian nationality,” was continuing, the statement said

BUCHAREST: Romanian rescue teams on Saturday were scouring the Black Sea for three Syrian sailors who went missing when their cargo ship sank off the coast, the naval authority said.
The Mohammed Z sank with 11 crew on board, 26 nautical miles off the Romanian town of Sfantu Gheorghe in the Danube delta in the Black Sea on Saturday morning, officials said in a statement.
The ship sailing under the Tanzanian flag was carrying nine Syrian and two Egyptian nationals, it said.
After receiving an alert at “around 4:00am,” naval authorities and border police were dispatched, with two nearby commercial vessels also joining the search and rescue operation.
Eight sailors were rescued by one of the nearby commercial vessels, while the search for the other three, “all of Syrian nationality,” was continuing, the statement said.
The cause of the accident was unclear.
According to the specialist website Marine Traffic, the ship departed from the Turkish port of Mersin and was heading to the Romanian port of Sulina.
Since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, drifting sea mines have posed a constant threat for ships in the Black Sea, with countries bordering it doubling down on demining efforts.
Ensuring safe passage through the Black Sea has gained particular importance since Romania’s Danube ports became hubs for the transit of grain following the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports.
 

 


Iraq parliament fails to elect a speaker

A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 19 May 2024
Follow

Iraq parliament fails to elect a speaker

A general view of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, Iraq. (REUTERS file photo)
  • A coalition of three Sunni blocs backed Issawi, while Mashhadani, who served as Iraq’s first speaker following the adoption of the 2005 constitution, received the support of the former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbussi’s sizeable bloc

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s lawmakers failed to elect a speaker on Saturday as neither of the two main candidates secured a majority during a tense session of parliament.
It is the latest in a series of failed attempts to replace the former head of parliament who was dismissed in November, with political bickering and divisions between key Sunni parties derailing every attempt so far.
Saturday’s vote was the closest yet to selecting a new head of the 329-member parliament, with 311 lawmakers showing up for the session and the leading candidate falling just seven votes short.
The parliament’s media office announced that 137 lawmakers chose Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, the oldest MP, while 158 picked Salem Al-Issawi.
However, candidates require at least 165 votes to win.
Many lawmakers did not return for a second attempt on Saturday, with local media sharing videos of a brief brawl between MPs and reporting that at least one of them was injured.
The parliament’s media office then announced that the session had been adjourned.
Iraq, a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups, is governed by complex power-sharing arrangements.
The largely ceremonial role of president traditionally goes to a Kurd, that of prime minister to a Shiite, while the speaker of parliament is usually Sunni.
But parliament is dominated by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties, reflecting the country’s largest religious group.
A coalition of three Sunni blocs backed Issawi, while Mashhadani, who served as Iraq’s first speaker following the adoption of the 2005 constitution, received the support of the former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbussi’s sizeable bloc.
The new speaker will replace Halbussi, the influential politician dismissed by Iraq’s top court in November last year after a lawmaker accused him of forging a resignation letter.
Halbussi had been the country’s highest-ranking Sunni official since he first became a speaker in 2018.
The new speaker’s stint will not last long with the general election due in 2025.