U.N. suspends investigations of several UNRWA workers accused of Hamas links

An internal investigation into the 12 U.N. relief workers in Gaza who Israel alleged were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack has cleared one person, “as no evidence was provided by Israel to support the allegations,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

Investigations into an additional three cases have been suspended because of insufficient evidence provided by Israel, he said, and eight cases remain under investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services.

Since Israel made its initial charges in January — leading major donors, including the United States, to suspend support for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — it has made allegations about seven additional UNRWA staffers, Dujarric said. These included five in March and two in April. Of those, an investigation into one “has also been suspended pending receipt of additional supporting evidence,” Dujarric said. “The remaining six of those cases are currently under investigation.”

Investigators with the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services traveled to Israel to meet with Israeli authorities and are expected to travel again in May, Dujarric said.

All of the initial 12 aid workers were immediately fired by UNRWA, although two were reported to have been killed during fighting in Gaza. Of those cases, the United Nations is considering what administrative action to take in the one case that has been cleared and the three in which investigations have been suspended. The employees involved in the seven new cases have been placed on administrative leave without pay.

Israel has long called for UNRWA to be dismantled, saying that Palestinians displaced decades ago by the establishment of the state of Israel and their descendants should not be considered refugees. At various points since the October attacks, Israel has publicly stated that many of UNRWA’s 13,000 staffers in Gaza — nearly all of whom are Palestinians — have ties to Hamas and other militant groups.

According to an independent assessment of UNRWA’s procedures to ensure neutrality among its employees that was released earlier this week, Israel has not provided evidence that significant numbers of workers of the aid agency have links to these groups.

A number of governments had already reversed their initial suspension of funding to the agency, and more followed after the report — led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna — essentially provided a clean bill of health for the organization, along with recommendations for improvement.

The U.S. intelligence community did not doubt, but could not verify, Israel’s claims about UNRWA workers on Oct. 7, U.S. officials told The Washington Post in February, citing a lack of independent information.

In response to the Colonna report, Israel again alleged — without evidence — that more than 2,135 UNRWA workers belong to either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that “one-fifth of UNRWA school administrators are Hamas members.”

The Biden administration has called UNRWA “indispensable” for the provision of humanitarian assistance in Gaza, but all U.S. support was barred until March of next year in a funding bill passed by Congress last month. The United States has long been the largest donor to UNRWA, providing nearly half of its budget.

Here’s what else to know

  • U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said there is “new momentum, new life,” to the hostage and cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas. His remarks to MSNBC came as an Egyptian delegation visited Israel after the Israeli war cabinet met to discuss hostage deal negotiations, and as Hamas said it was reviewing the latest offer from Israel.
  • Washington has not decided whether to cut aid to an Israeli military unit accused of human rights violations, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. The anticipated decision is the subject of major tensions with Israel. The Netzah Yehuda battalion, consisting of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, has been the subject of accusations of abuse toward Palestinians since before the war in Gaza, according to Israeli media reports.
  • U.N. officials have received reports that at least two children have died due to extreme heat in Gaza, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement. Gaza has been experiencing an unusual heat wave, with temperatures hovering around 104 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the United Nations.
  • A premature Palestinian baby, delivered via emergency Caesarean section after her mother was fatally wounded, has died in Gaza after five days in an incubator, the Associated Press reported. Sabreen Jouda died in a Gaza hospital after her health deteriorated, her uncle told the AP. Doctors had operated to save Sabreen after her parents — including her mother, who was seven months pregnant — and sister were killed last week in an Israeli airstrike, The Post reported.
  • At least 34,356 people have been killed and 77,368 injured in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and says 261 soldiers have been killed since its military operation in Gaza began.

Claire Parker, John Hudson and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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