JERUSALEM — Israel has not provided evidence that significant numbers of workers with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees are tied to militant groups, but the agency must implement more robust vetting of staff members to ensure neutrality and work to reestablish trust with donors, a highly anticipated report said Monday.

Based on an examination of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s screening procedures, code of ethics, management structure, staff training and other practices, the independent review group concluded that the agency has “established and updated a significant number of policies, mechanisms and procedures” to uphold neutrality in recent years but is in need of critical reforms.

“In the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA remains pivotal in providing lifesaving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank,” the report said.

The U.N. General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949 to help Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel. More than seven decades later, UNRWA continues to administer government-like services for more than 5 million people across Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The findings released Monday will largely come as a relief to the embattled agency, which was pitched into an existential crisis in January after Israel alleged that a dozen of its 13,000 employees in Gaza participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks, and that the agency was widely infiltrated by Hamas and other militant groups.

Sixteen major donors, including the United States, suspended funding worth about $450 million, nearly half of UNRWA’s budget for the year. UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini immediately fired the staff members in question — a sign, he said, of how seriously the agency took the allegations. But Israel — long opposed to an agency that it sees as perpetuating the Palestinian refugee issue and stoking antisemitism — called for UNRWA to be disbanded.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in February, without providing evidence, that Israel had intelligence indicating that an additional 30 UNRWA workers participated in the Oct. 7 assault and that 12 percent of UNRWA’s workers in the Gaza Strip were affiliated with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller Islamist group in the Gaza Strip.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres commissioned the independent review group that month “to assess whether the Agency is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made.”

The body, led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna and a trio of Scandinavian research institutions, did not examine the accusations that some UNRWA employees took part in the Oct. 7 attacks; those claims are being probed separately by investigators from the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is expected to release its own report later this year.

In some ways, this was the higher-stakes investigation: Several major donors, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have said the restoration of their funding to the agency rests on assessments of its neutrality.

The group spoke with more than 200 people, including senior UNRWA leaders across the region and officials from donor states, host countries, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, during its nine-week review.

Its final report outlined a variety of measures, including staff training and investigation procedures, that the agency has taken to maintain neutrality and discipline employees who violate humanitarian principles. It also said UNRWA has mechanisms in place to prevent its facilities from being misused for political or military purposes, though it called for more regular inspections.

On staff vetting, the report said UNRWA shares staff lists annually with host countries and with Israel for East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. The United States also receives the lists upon request. These states are then responsible for raising any red flags — but Israel had not done so since 2011, the report said.

The Israeli foreign ministry informed the group that it had received staff lists without Palestinian identification numbers before March 2024.

“On the basis of the March 2024 list, which contained Palestinian ID numbers, Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organizations,” the report said. “However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this.”

UNRWA currently screens all affiliates biannually against the U.N. sanctions list. But the sanctions roster is “limited to a small number of individuals, and UNRWA lacks the support of intelligence services to undertake efficient and comprehensive vetting.”

UNRWA has already agreed to provide donors with lists of its employees, including ID card information, every quarter. The report called on host countries and Israel to screen staff and share evidence of any concerning findings.

The group also examined Israeli allegations that UNRWA-run schools rely on educational materials that deny Israel’s right to exist and glorify violence resistance. Colonna’s team said UNRWA has taken steps to purge politicized material from Palestinian Authority textbooks, noting that a review last year found a “small fraction” of textbook pages contain objectionable content.

“Even if marginal, these issues constitute a grave violation of neutrality,” the report said, urging UNRWA to audit the content of learning materials with Israeli and other authorities.

Across the board, lack of funding significantly hampers efforts to uphold the organization’s neutrality, the group found.

UNRWA is unique in the United Nations ecosystem since it provides basic services to a specific population and draws most of its 32,000 employees from the pool of Palestinian refugees it serves. Staff are “living the occupation,” which creates both valuable expertise and challenges to ensuring neutrality, Adam Bouloukos, UNRWA’s West Bank director, said in an interview last month.

“Neutrality breaches by UNRWA personnel often take the form of social media posts, particularly following incidents of violence affecting colleagues or relatives,” the report said, recommending that the agency do more to create space for workers to discuss traumatic events.

Still, agency policy — as outlined by the review group — requires employees to show neutrality at all times or risk disciplinary measures. UNRWA vehemently rejects accusations it is widely infiltrated by Hamas or is complicit in militant activity. It says Israel has still not provided detailed evidence to back up its allegations.

The U.S. intelligence community could not verify the Israeli claims about Oct. 7 with a high degree of confidence, officials told The Post in February.

A Washington Post analysis found that the face and vehicle of a man who was captured in CCTV footage from Kibbutz Beeri on Oct. 7 dragging the limp body of an Israeli man into a car appeared to match that of Faisal Ali Musalam Naami, 45, an UNRWA social worker identified by Israel as a participant in the attacks. Otherwise, The Post has been unable to independently verify the Israeli allegations.

UNRWA, meanwhile, said this month that Palestinian UNRWA staff in Gaza detained by the IDF had been subjected to mistreatment in Israeli custody and were “pressured during interrogations to make forced confessions against the Agency.”

“The IDF acts in accordance with Israeli and international law in order to protect the rights of the detainees held in the detention and questioning facilities,” the IDF said in a statement to The Post.

On top of funding challenges, the agency says Israel has restricted its access to northern Gaza and has repeatedly hit its UNRWA facilities in Gaza. Lazzarini told the Security Council last week that 178 UNRWA workers have been killed since the start of the war, and called for an investigation. West Bank staff have faced increased harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers. In East Jerusalem, Israeli politicians are seeking to evict UNRWA from its headquarters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s postwar plan for Gaza, unveiled in February, envisions the dismantling of UNRWA.

“UNRWA is Hamas and Hamas is UNRWA,” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council last week.

“Israel cannot and will not allow UNRWA to continue in Gaza as it did in the past,” he said. “The time has come to defund UNRWA.”

Despite the hard-line rhetoric, some officials in Jerusalem quietly acknowledge that doing away with the agency in the near future could undermine Israeli interests, since UNRWA provides aid and services in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel is loath to take on.

Gaza is in the throes of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with more than 2 million people at risk of famine, according to the world’s top body for assessing food insecurity.

UNRWA is “the backbone of the humanitarian operation” in Gaza, Lazzarini told the Security Council last week, making a desperate pitch for member states to support an agency “under enormous strain.”

Most major donors have restored funding since January. But U.S. contributions — which at $422 million in 2023 dwarfed those of the next largest donors — are on hold until March 2025, after Republicans in Congress tacked a year-long funding ban onto a government spending package last month.

Even so, the Biden administration has continued to publicly acknowledge UNRWA’s importance to the region: U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood told the Security Council on Wednesday that it plays an “indispensable role” in Gaza.

Guterres accepted the recommendations and agreed with Lazzarini that UNRWA will “establish an action plan” to implement them, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement Monday.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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