Skip to Content Facebook Feature Image

Review of UN agency helping Palestinian refugees found Israel did not express concern about staff

News

Review of UN agency helping Palestinian refugees found Israel did not express concern about staff
News

News

Review of UN agency helping Palestinian refugees found Israel did not express concern about staff

2024-04-23 06:06 Last Updated At:14:01

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An independent review of the neutrality of the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency known as UNRWA had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks.

In a wide-ranging 48-page report released Monday, the independent panel said UNRWA has “robust” procedures to uphold the U.N. principle of neutrality, but it cited serious gaps in implementation, including staff publicly expressing political views, textbooks used in schools the agency runs with “problematic content” and staff unions disrupting operations. It makes 50 recommendations to improve UNRWA's neutrality.

From 2017 to 2022, the report said, the annual number of allegations of neutrality being breached at UNRWA ranged from seven to 55. But between January 2022 and February 2024, U.N. investigators received 151 allegations, most related to social media posts “made public by external sources,” it said.

In a key section on the neutrality of staff, the panel, which was led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, said UNRWA shares lists of staff with host countries for its 32,000 staff, including about 13,000 in Gaza. But it said Israeli officials never expressed concern and informed panel members it did not consider the list “a screening or vetting process” but rather a procedure to register diplomats.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry informed the panel that until March 2024 the staff lists did not include Palestinian identification numbers, the report said.

Apparently based on those numbers, “Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations,” the panel said. “However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this" to the refugee agency.

Colonna stressed that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed the independent review panel to review UNRWA's neutrality — not to investigate Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA staffers participated in the Oct. 7 attacks. Guterres ordered the U.N. internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, known as OIOS, to conduct a separate investigation into those Israeli allegations.

“It is a separate mission. And it is not in our mandate,” Colonna said. She also said it is not surprising that Israel did not provide evidence of its allegations to the refugee agency “because it doesn't owe this evidence during the investigation to UNRWA but to the OIOS.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Monday the U,N. hopes to have an update from OIOS “in the coming days.” He said its investigators have been in contact with Israeli security services.

Israel’s allegations led to the suspension of contributions to UNRWA by the United States and more than a dozen other countries. That amounted to a pause in funding worth about $450 million, according to Monday’s report, but a number of countries have resumed contributions.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Monday called on donor countries to avoid sending money to the organization.

“The Colonna report ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of Hamas’ infiltration of UNRWA,” ministry spokesperson Oren Marmorstein said. “This is not what a genuine and thorough review looks like. This is what an effort to avoid the problem and not address it head on looks like.”

Colonna urged the Israeli government not to discount the independent review. “Of course you will find it is insufficient, but please take it on board. Whatever we recommend, if implemented, will bring good," she said.

The report stresses the critical importance of UNRWA, calling it “irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development” in the absence of a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “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.”

Dujarric welcomed this commitment to UNRWA and said the report “lays out clear recommendations, which the secretary-general accepts.” The U.N. hopes to see the return of donors as well as new donors following the report’s release, he said.

Among the recommendations are steps to tackle politicization of UNRWA staff and its staff unions. The report recommends that staff lists with ID numbers be provided to host countries, which would then tell UNRWA the results of their screening and "any red flags.”

The report also calls for stronger oversight of UNRWA’s leadership and operations, “zero-tolerance" of antisemitism or discrimination in textbooks used in its schools, and greater international involvement in supporting the agency as it addresses neutrality issues.

UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said safeguarding the agency's neutrality is critical to its work and it is developing a plan to implement the report's recommendations.

With Israel calling for the breakup of the agency, Lazzarini told the U.N. Security Council last week that dismantling UNRWA would deepen Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and speed up the onset of famine.

International experts have warned of imminent famine in northern Gaza and said half the territory’s 2.3 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation if the Israeli-Hamas war intensifies.

The review was conducted over nine weeks by Colonna and three Scandinavian research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. Colonna said the group spoke with more than 200 people, including UNRWA staff in Gaza, and had direct contacts with representatives of 47 countries and organizations.

A Palestinian reacts to seeing the young victim of an Israeli airstrike, at Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Monday, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

A Palestinian reacts to seeing the young victim of an Israeli airstrike, at Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Monday, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

FILE - United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speak during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters, April 18, 2024. An independent review released Monday, April 22, of the neutrality of UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Guterres ordered the U.N. internal watchdog to carry out a separate investigation into the allegations. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

FILE - United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speak during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters, April 18, 2024. An independent review released Monday, April 22, of the neutrality of UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Guterres ordered the U.N. internal watchdog to carry out a separate investigation into the allegations. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

FILE - French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna speaks during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 18, 2023. An independent review released Monday, April 22, 2023, of the neutrality of UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. The independent panel, led by Colonna, said UNRWA has "robust" procedures to uphold the U.N. principle of neutrality. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

FILE - French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna speaks during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 18, 2023. An independent review released Monday, April 22, 2023, of the neutrality of UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. The independent panel, led by Colonna, said UNRWA has "robust" procedures to uphold the U.N. principle of neutrality. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

FILE - Palestinian children who fled with their parents from their houses in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh, gather in the backyard of an UNRWA school, in Sidon, Lebanon, Sept. 12, 2023. An independent review released Monday, April 22, 2024, of the neutrality of UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

FILE - Palestinian children who fled with their parents from their houses in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh, gather in the backyard of an UNRWA school, in Sidon, Lebanon, Sept. 12, 2023. An independent review released Monday, April 22, 2024, of the neutrality of UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, has found that Israel never expressed concern about anyone on the staff lists it has received annually since 2011. The review was carried out after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency had participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

PARIS (AP) — The Syrian soldiers came first, at night, for the son, Patrick, a 20-year-old psychology student at Damascus University, and said they were taking him away for questioning.

They came back the next night for his father, Mazen.

Five years later, in 2018, death certificates from Syrian authorities confirmed to the Dabbagh family that the French-Syrian father and son would never come home again.

In a landmark trial, a Paris court will this week seek to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials — the most senior to go on trial in a European court over crimes allegedly committed during the country's civil war — were responsible for their disappearance and deaths.

The four-day hearings, starting Tuesday, are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's government has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to hold on to power during the conflict, now in its 14th year.

The French trial comes as Assad has been regaining an aura of international respectability, starting to shed his long-time status as a pariah that stemmed from the violence unleashed on his opponents. Human rights groups that are parties to the French case hope it will refocus attention on the alleged atrocities.

Here's a look at those involved:

— Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Bureau overseeing Syrian security and intelligence services. Allegedly worked directly with Assad. Now in his late 70s.

— Jamil Hassan, former Air Force intelligence director. Survivors testifying in the case allege having seen him at a detention center in the capital, Damascus, where the Dabbaghs are thought to have been held. In his early 70s.

— Salam Mahmoud, in his mid-60s, a former investigations official at a Damascus military airport believed to house the detention center. Mahmoud is alleged to have expropriated the Dabbaghs' house after they were taken away.

The three men are accused of provoking crimes against humanity, giving instructions to commit them and allowing subordinates to commit them through the alleged arrest, torture and killing of the father and son. They also are accused of confiscating their house and of putting Air Force intelligence services at the disposal of people who allegedly killed them.

The accused are being tried in absentia. French magistrates issued arrest warrants for them in October 2018, despite acknowledging that there was little likelihood of their extradition to France. Defense lawyers will not represent them and French magistrates determined they don't have diplomatic immunity.

“The three people accused are very senior officials of the Syrian system of repression and torture. This gives a particular tone to this trial. They are not small fish,” said Patrick Baudouin, a lawyer for rights groups involved in the case.

“The legal file is very detailed, full of evidence of systematic, very diverse and absolutely monstrous torture practices," Baudouin said.

Patrick and Mazen Dabbagh had dual French-Syrian nationality, which enabled French magistrates to pursue the case. The probe of their disappearance started in 2015 when Obeida Dabbagh, Mazen's brother, testified to investigators already examining war crimes in Syria.

Obeida Dabbagh lives in France with his wife, Hanane, and is also a party in the case. According to the trial indictment, seen by The Associated Press, he told French investigators that three or four soldiers came for Patrick around 11 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2013, during the height of Arab Spring-inspired anti-government protests that were met by a brutal crackdown. The soldiers identified themselves as members of a Syrian Air Force intelligence branch. Obeida also testified they searched the house, taking cellphones, computers and money.

They came back the next night for Mazen Dabbagh, who was 54 and worked as a counselor at a French high school in Damascus, and also took his new car, the brother said.

Their death certificates said Patrick died Jan. 21, 2014, and Mazen on Nov. 25, 2017, but didn't say how or where.

French investigating magistrates collected evidence from those who deserted the Syrian government and military, and prison survivors as they built the case.

Testifying anonymously, survivors' accounts speak in the indictment of rape and of being denied food and water; of beatings on the feet, knees and elsewhere with whips, cables and truncheons; of electric shocks and burnings with acid or boiling water; of being suspended from the ceiling for hours or days.

Investigators also studied images provided by a Syrian policeman, who anonymously turned over photographs of thousands of torture victims.

Cameras are generally banned from French criminal trials, but this one will be filmed for historical record.

In a separate investigation, French magistrates have also targeted President Assad himself but face questions about whether he benefits from presidential immunity.

Magistrates are investigating chemical weapons' attacks that killed more than 1,000 people and injured thousands of others in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013. They issued international arrest warrants for Assad, his brother Maher Assad, commander of the 4th Armored Division, and two Syrian army generals — Ghassan Abbas and Bassam al-Hassan — for alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The French probe was opened in 2021 in response to a criminal complaint by attack survivors. The investigation is being conducted under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which argues that in some cases, crimes can be pursued outside the countries where they take place.

The Syrian government and its allies have denied responsibility for the attacks.

The French warrants, very rare for a serving world leader, were seen as a strong signal against Assad’s leadership at a time when some countries have welcomed him back into the diplomatic fold. Victims' lawyers hailed the warrants as “a crucial milestone in the battle against impunity.”

The Paris appeals court is weighing whether Assad has absolute immunity as head of state. French prosecutors asked it to rule on that question at a closed hearing May 15.

That procedure does not impact the warrants for Assad’s brother and the generals.

In March, Swiss prosecutors indicted Rifat Assad, the president’s uncle and a former Syrian vice president, for allegedly ordering murder and torture more than four decades ago to crush an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement, in the city of Hama, where thousands were killed.

A court in Stockholm put a former Syrian army general who lives in Sweden on trial in April for his alleged role in war crimes in 2012.

Courts in Germany found two former Syrian soldiers guilty in 2021 and 2022 of crimes against humanity. One was sentenced to life imprisonment, the other to 4 1/2 years for complicity. They had claimed refugee status in Germany before former detainees recognized them there. They were tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Surk reported from Nice, France. Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

FILE - In this photo released on Nov. 9, 2019 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus, Syria. In a landmark trial, a Paris court will this week seek Tuesday May 21, 2024 to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials were responsible for Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh's disappearance and deaths. The hearings are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's regime has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to keep power in Syria's civil war. (SANA via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo released on Nov. 9, 2019 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus, Syria. In a landmark trial, a Paris court will this week seek Tuesday May 21, 2024 to determine whether Syrian intelligence officials were responsible for Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh's disappearance and deaths. The hearings are expected to air chilling allegations that President Bashar Assad's regime has widely used torture and arbitrary detentions to keep power in Syria's civil war. (SANA via AP, File)

Recommended Articles