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Media downplays lack of evidence in UNRWA employee scandal

Media downplays lack of evidence in UNRWA employee scandal

Israel's flimsy dossier on the agency's alleged ties to Hamas is fueling calls to de-fund the only major aid pipeline to Palestinians in Gaza today.

Reporting | Media

Momentum in Washington to cut or eliminate U.S. funding for a United Nations agency that aids Palestinians is moving forward almost entirely unchecked. But it’s based on unproven allegations — largely uncritically amplified by U.S. media — that the agency’s staff had links to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The allegations are contained in an Israeli government dossier claiming that 13 employees (one of which was not identified), out of a total of 13,000, at the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) either took part or assisted in the Hamas-led atrocities. Israel notified UNRWA of the allegations early last month and authorities at the U.N. agency immediately fired the 12 employees without conducting an investigation.

News of the allegations broke soon thereafter which opened the floodgates of knee-jerk reactions, including donor countries pausing their funding for UNRWA — which could result in millions of Palestinians in Gaza stranded without aid amid a humanitarian crisis —and efforts in Washington to cut UNRWA’s funding entirely and forever.

Meanwhile, these debates have been buttressed by inaccurate media coverage of Israel’s allegations. More specifically, many major U.S. news outlets have been leaving out one key detail when reporting on the Israeli dossier: while the Israelis make a number of claims and accusations that they say are based on intelligence and other source data, the document itself contains no direct evidence that these 12 identified UNRWA employees participated in or assisted the Oct. 7 attack.

Some outlets at least tried to make this point clear in wider stories or segments on the saga. For example, the Associated Press has noted that the Israelis provided no evidence. CBS News’s Debora Patta noted on the network’s Nightly News program on January 29 that in the document, “Israel accuses 12 UNRWA employees of being involved in the October 7 Hamas attack, including the kidnapping of Israeli citizens,” adding, “But they have yet to provide evidence substantiating these claims.”

CNN reported that the network “has not seen the intelligence that underlies the summary of allegations” and that that summary “does not provide evidence to support its claims.”

CNN anchor Anna Coren asked Ophir Falk, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu, to provide evidence — which he could not — and wondered why the alleged perpetrators haven’t been arrested. “Well the first step is for them to be fired,” Falk said.

Outside of the AP, CBS, and CNN, major U.S. media reporting on this issue has largely accepted the Israeli claims or have even gone further as to advance the Israeli narrative on UNRWA. The New York Times, for example, has published several stories on the UNRWA saga, and none of them have mentioned that the Israeli dossier has no specific evidence (it’s probably worth noting here that one of the reporters covering this issue for the Times once served in the Israeli Defense Forces).

The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article giving credence to the Israeli allegations and in another, reported that the dossier “is the most detailed look yet at the widespread links between the UNRWA employees and militants.” Another Journal article said the allegations are “a blow” to UNRWA without telling readers the dossier provides no evidence.

Meanwhile, ABC World News Tonight’s report on the dossier not only failed to tell its viewers it contains no specific evidence, but it went a step further reporting that “the U.N. has not denied the claims.”

Others like NBC Nightly News and the Washington Post provided lengthy coverage of the Israeli allegations and mention only in passing that the outlets have not independently verified the claims.

Conversely, some non-traditional media outlets have been more forceful in their coverage of the dossier, making the lack of evidence a key feature of their reporting. For example, Breaking Points’ Krystal Ball this week took the Israeli claims to task. “It is literally just a[n] evidence-free list of allegations, …no actual evidence is provided,” she said, adding, “Now maybe they did participate and maybe they didn’t. I can tell you there is definitely not enough that has been provided to say anything about this. Again, zero evidence provided.”

Most of the mainstream reports also omit key contextual information, like for example, that UNRWA routinely provides the Israeli government with a list of the names of its employees, or that many on the right in Israel, and their allies in the United States, have been trying to shut down UNRWA for decades because they believe the U.N. agency legitimizes Palestinians’ claims to land they say was stolen by Israel.

“There has been a long standing aim for Republicans and some Democrats in Congress to defund UNRWA long before Oct. 7, as they see the agency as responsible for enabling the right of return to be an ever growing final status issue,” Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told RS.

Indeed, the Biden administration worked with Senate leaders this week on an aid bill that would bar any funding from going to UNRWA and prevent any funding going to the agency that has already been allocated to it. And the House is now considering a bill that would permanently block U.S. funds to UNRWA.

“While the bipartisan consensus is not where the House is currently, the Overton window has shifted closer to those wishing for congressional cut off to the agency,” Braunold said.

Meanwhile, UNRWA says it will run out of money by the end of February if donor countries like the United States continue to withhold their funding. Top U.N. officials are pleading with donors to keep the agency funded.

“Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Phillipe Lazzarini said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment.”

Former UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness is asking wealthy countries in the region to underwrite the aid agency should its funding collapse at the end of the month. “Some of the most desperate people in the Middle East are now facing starvation, they’re facing famine, and the Arab states need to step up to the plate,” he said.

It appears that the Biden administration agrees with that sentiment. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby even suggested recently that the administration would support UNRWA even if a formal investigation finds that the 12 employees assisted Hamas’s attack.

“I do think it's important to remember that UNRWA does important work across the region, certainly in Gaza,” he said last week on NBC’s Today Show. “They have helped save thousands of lives and we shouldn't impugn the good work of a whole agency because of the terrible allegations lobbied against just a small number of their employees.”

Palestinians receive flour bags distributed by UNRWA in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip November 21, 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/File Photo

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