UN Report Clearing UNRWA of Terror Ties a ‘Whitewash,’ Witnesses Tell Congress

Dan M. Berger
By Dan M. Berger
May 19, 2024US News
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UN Report Clearing UNRWA of Terror Ties a ‘Whitewash,’ Witnesses Tell Congress
An Israeli soldier runs down a crater-like hole giving way to a tunnel entrance, leading to where the military discovered tunnels underneath the main headquarters of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, in Gaza on Feb. 8, 2024. (Ariel Schalit /AP Photo)

Three expert witnesses testifying before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee denounced as a whitewash a recent U.N. investigation into its troubled agency assisting Palestinians in Gaza.

On May 17, they told the Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), that the Colonna Report was released by a committee stacked with agency supporters handpicked by the agency’s director.

The agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), has overseen relief distribution and other services to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank since 1949.

Former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna led the U.N.’s investigation. It included representatives of three institutions that witnesses said were regarded as pro-UNRWA: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Sweden, the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The nine-week investigation began in response to Israeli allegations of the deep entanglement of UNRWA with Hamas, the terror group controlling Gaza, and banned in the United States.

Those allegations have already had an impact: $450 million in foreign aid was halted, and President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan foreign aid bill halting all aid to UNRWA until at least March 25, 2025. The United States had been providing a third of UNRWA’s billion-dollar budget.

Ms. Colonna’s committee began work a week after the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 30 to 19 to halt UNRWA’s funding.

The Colonna report, Mr. Smith said, “was set up solely to whitewash UNRWA’s record.” The House subcommittee wanted to examine that, he said, as well as “U.S. funding to organizations other than UNRWA, which are affiliated to terrorists or otherwise promote violence against Israelis.”

Colonna’s panel released a 54-page report of dense bureaucratic language obscuring the gravity of Israel’s charges: that at least a dozen UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, that 1,200 UNRWA employees belong to the banned terrorist organization controlling Gaza, that 6,000 or almost half of its 13,000 employees have family members in Hamas.

Israel has said Hamas arms have been found in or under some of the 2,000 buildings the agency controls in Gaza, that a Hamas spy computer center tapped the UNRWA building above it for electric power, and that at least two hostages were held in the homes of likely UNRWA staffers, including a teacher and a doctor.

Ms. Colonna, Rep. Smith said, “has a long history of support for UNRWA and hostility to Israel.” All three organizations tapped to work with her have similar histories, including accusations of genocide and apartheid against Israel, he said.

“Senior officials connected to the report repeatedly stated that their goal was to, quote, reassure donors and to provide donors with further cover,” he said.

Several nations, including Australia, Canada, and Sweden, resumed funding UNRWA even before the Colonna report was published.

One of the witnesses, Hillel Neuer, spoke of UNRWA’s refusals to appear with him or debate him. On May 13, he said, he was disinvited from a panel discussing UNRWA at the Stimson Center in Washington after, he was told, UNRWA’s representative at it refused to participate if he was there.

NTD Photo
Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) speaks during a press conference discussing the implications of the Safeguarding National Security Bill (Article 23 legislation) at the House Triangle near the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on March 22, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

The Colonna Report “is, we’re told, an independent audit that has given UNRWA a clean bill of health exonerating the agency of all charges of its ties with terrorism,” Mr. Neuer said. “This headline was repeated around the world and used by several countries to reinstate funding.”

“There’s one problem, though, Mr. Chairman. These claims are completely false.”

The investigators were not impartial, he said. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini had denounced Israel’s charges of terror ties as a disingenuous, politically motivated, and smear campaign, Mr. Neuer said.

“In doing so he irreparably tainted the credibility of the inquiry,” Mr. Neuer said. He picked Ms. Colonna to head it a few weeks after she’d posted her backing of UNRWA on social media. She had done that, Mr. Neuer said, after his own group, U.N. Watch, had exposed a social media group where 3,000 UNRWA employees had celebrated the Oct. 7 massacre.

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U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting on UNRWA at U.N. headquarters in New York on April 17, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/ AFP via Getty Images)

“He chose someone who he knew very well was sympathetic to UNRWA, to say the least,” Mr. Neuer said. And France is UNRWA’s fourth largest donor. A former UNRWA spokesman subsequently told the Al Jazeera television network that “the report by the former French foreign minister, quote, will provide the donors with further cover.”

“The report says the following: UNRWA quote remains pivotal in providing life saving humanitarian aid. UNRWA is irreplaceable and indispensable, (a) humanitarian lifeline. Mr. Chairman, we didn’t need to have an independent review group of the French foreign minister and three Scandinavian institutes to produce those lines. Those words are the official UNWRA talking points,” Mr. Neuer said.

Mr. Neuer derided the report for its flowery language proclaiming “UNRWA has established a significant number of policies and mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with a more developed approach to neutrality than any other similar U.N. or NGO entities. . . . The truth is the complete opposite.”

He compared the report to the Soviet Union’s Stalin-era constitution, a soaring statement of human rights—guaranteeing direct elections, freedom of conscience, and other liberties. The Soviet dictator proclaimed it the most democratic constitution in the world.

“The reality was the complete opposite,” Mr. Neuer said, noting that the constitution came into play in 1936, just before the Great Purge began, a terror resulting in the arrest and then execution or deportation to Siberia of millions of citizens.

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Displaced Palestinian people sit on benches as they wait outside a clinic of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 28, 2024. (-/AFP via Getty Images)

Yona Schiffmiller, research director for NGO Monitor, a group watchdog nonprofit group, said Hamas’s coercion makes accountability and oversight of UNRWA unlikely. U.S. law bans funding groups that promote violence, terrorism, anti-Semitism, or the employment of individuals espousing those.

James G. Lindsay, former general counsel for UNRWA, former Justice Department criminal lawyer, and author of a 2009 report on the group, told the committee he walked away from it when it became apparent that while it said it was vetting staff members for terror ties, it wasn’t doing it.

He saw a quote from the UNRWA commissioner general in the Canadian media saying, “Yes, I know we have Hamas people working for us, but it’s not something we worry about.”

He objected to UNRWA’s management, “and I was rebuffed. And so I moved on.”

The Colonna Report itself documents indirectly how incompetent the agency is, he said. Of its 50 recommendations, he said, about 37 “reflect obvious management deficiencies, things like the need for training, better coordination with other agencies, better enforcement of rules, employing more women as managers, that any competent management team would have long ago addressed with prodding from an independent review.”

He noted that of the 5.9 million Palestinians UNRWA designates as “refugees,” 1.8 million don’t meet the legal definition because they are citizens of and live in Jordan. Someone can’t be a citizen and a refugee at the same time, he said. Others should be stricken from the assistance rolls for their criminal records or support of terrorism, he said.

The hearing was slightly disrupted by pro-Palestine demonstrators. Several had “FREE GAZA” written on their arms. They held their arms up in the air and checked the monitors of the hearing’s cameras to make sure the messages were showing. One wore a “Free Palestine” T-shirt.

At one point, Mr. Smith stopped the hearing to admonish them, noting that showing signs was illegal. Some shouting broke out off camera, and he then had police clear them from the hearing chamber.

From The Epoch Times

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