Hillel Neuer at the International Summit for a Future Beyond UNRWA

Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch

Opening remarks:

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Hillel Neuer. I am the executive director of United Nations Watch. We are marking our 31st year since we were founded here in Geneva to monitor the United Nations and hold it accountable to the principles of its own charter.

I would like to welcome all of you, and people watching around the world online, to the first-ever international summit for a future beyond UNRWA. 

We are at a turning point. Just a few weeks ago, most of the donor states of UNRWA led by the US froze their funding for the first time to this agency over evidence that members of the UNRWA staff actually took part in the atrocities of October 7th. Evidence, as reported in the Wall Street Journal that anywhere between 1,200 to 1,500 employees of UNRWA, a so-called humanitarian group, actually belong to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And with us here, we will hear from her later is Ayelet Samareno, she is the mother of 21-year-old Yonatan who tragically was murdered on th October and his lifeless body is seen on a video, and we will see it later when she speaks, was taken away by an UNRWA social worker. It is seen on video of [him] driving a white SUV with UNRWA license plates. That just underscores so much of what we will hear today. The problem with this supposedly humanitarian organization.

So countries have frozen funding, that’s where we are at today. They have created two inquiries, one is by the Internal Oversight Office, known as OIOS. We’ll hear shortly from Ed Flaherty, he is a lawyer here in Geneva and he is an expert on UN investigations. And we are going to understand how this OIOS is indeed perhaps the last kind of entity that can conduct an independent investigation. It’s not independent, we’ll hear from him about that. 

There is a second investigation, which is very significant. It’s headed by Catherine Colonna, the former French Foreign Minister, she just stepped down about a month ago. She heads this independent review group set up by the Secretary-General. It’s supposed to look into how UNRWA deals with violations of neutrality and how they respond to it. And there are serious questions about the independence of this group. Catherine Colonna herself as she stepped down, she sent a tweet, message, publicly to the head of UNRWA congratulating him on his wonderful work which is needed now more than ever. This was on January 14th, 4 days after we began to reveal the telegram chat group of 3,000 UNRWA teachers who were celebrating the atrocities of October 7th. So after we initially exposed it, 4 days later, Catherine Colonna, French foreign minister, congratulated UNRWA on their valuable work that is “needed more than ever.” Is she really qualified to conduct a credible, objective, serious independent review? The question answers itself. 

The three other institutions joining her all have prior pronouncements and statements and reports on their websites, which are anything but objective when it comes to UNRWA. So the international community is now waiting, this investigation is due to give back an interim report in a month’s time, at the end of March. 

Secretary-General Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said this group is intended to reassure the donor states, in other words “you’re all going to have to give back your funding and we set up this review group to reassure you.” 

So in a sense, it’s all predetermined. We know already in advance that the group headed by Catherine Colonna will reassure the donor states and they want to reinstate the funding. But we do have this one month or two months before that happens, so this is a critical moment, and I want to thank everyone who has come here. We have an incredible group that has assembled here in person. 

We are going to hear from members of parliament. I’ll just note two of them, one is Congressman Chris Smith. He has been a leader in the US Congress in fighting against terrorism and antisemitism incited by UNRWA staff. He is the author of legislation to stop funding for UNRWA, it has already passed in the foreign affairs committee recently by a majority and we are hoping it will head to a vote in the House itself.

I want to acknowledge David Lega who is a leader in the European parliament on these issues. And hopefully I’ll get to see him in the European Parliament sometime soon. 

We have Assita Kanko from the European Parliament and Caroline Yadan from the French National Assembly, and did I miss some other members of parliament who are here in the room? A number of them will be participating by video. 


I’ll just say a word or two about where we are. We are meters away from the UN European headquarters. And the Israeli ambassador who I will introduce in a moment just stepped out of the opening ceremony of the 2024 Human Rights Council session, opened by Mr. Secretary General Guterres. 


The Human Rights Council was founded in 1946. Its first significant act was to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. In that document, in the preamble, it says, – this was 1948–  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in response to “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” That is the essence of what the United Nations was supposed to be about, what the Human Rights Council was supposed to be about. 


And we are just across the street from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, which is the bastion of humanitarian law. 

We are at the center point of universal human rights and humanitarianism in this very spot.

And so we ask, are these human rights and humanitarian bodies, are they actually acting against barbarous acts? 


On October 7th, and we have Ayelet, whose son was tragically murdered as one of these barbarous acts, his lifeless body was abducted by an UNRWA worker.

And we will hear from Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz that barbarism and terrorism among UNRWA staff, sadly, is not a bug, but a feature. 

And I want to ask Mr. Guterres, Mr. Guterres has said repeatedly, and he’s right next door, so I ask you, you have said repeatedly, UNRWA is irreplaceable. Well, we are going to hear from humanitarian experts, we are going to hear from Zlatko Zigic, who served at the UN migration agency. We are going to hear from Bonnie Glick who was the deputy administrator of USAID, from Jose Garson, an expert at the UN capital development fund, that, guess what, UNRWA is not irreplaceable. There are millions of refugees and other individuals who have humanitarian needs who are addressed by an array UN bodies that are not riddled and infested with terrorism. 

There are other alternatives, but sadly Mr. Secretary General you gave orders, we know that because it was reported by veteran UN reporter Colum Lynch in Devex last week that the Secretary General Guterres has urged the heads of UN principle relief agencies, including World Food Program and UNICEF to rebuff appeals by Israel and the US to undertake work currently carried by the world body’s beleaguered Palestinian refugee agency. 

In other words Secretary General Guterres, notwithstanding efforts by ambassador David Satterfield, the US humanitarian envoy and the USAID and the State Department to find other agencies that can do the work. Guterres has given them orders: “you are prohibited from picking up any of the services that Palestinians need, you are not allowed to do it.” So this is what we are facing. 

Mr. Guterres, you say repeatedly the talking points that are parroted by the apologists for UNRWA around the world. You say repeatedly that UNRWA does lifesaving work, it’s a lifeline. We have a video that my colleague Luis prepared, you’ll see dozens of individuals around the world parroting the talking point, UNRWA does lifesaving work, UNRWA is a lifeline, it’s irreplaceable. 

Really Mr. Guterres? 100,000 people in the last 24 hours, more than 100,000 people, when I asked them to support this conference, they rallied around the world and I have 100,000 names printed up here. 100,00 people have signed the petition.  And I’m just going to read a few words here.

Enough is enough, UNRWA must be dissolved and replaced. In the last few weeks it’s been revealed, again Mr. Guterres, you say that UNRWA does lifesaving work, it has been revealed that 12 UNRWA staff took part in the massacre of October 7th, and actually it’s another 30 at least that we have evidence were related, so about 42 at least. 1,200 staff, at least ,are part of terrorist groups. 3,000 belonged to this telegram chat group that celebrated the massacre of October 7th. 

We have an UNRWA headquarters in Gaza, underneath was a tunnel built by Hamas for another key asset, a computer server with espionage intelligence center built under UNRWA headquarters in Gaza with electric cables coming directly from the UNRWA headquarters. 

Philippe Lazzarini, Mr. Guterres, your head of UNRWA, he was asked about it. His response was, literally “UNRWA does not know what is under its headquarters in Gaza.” So even though 10 years ago, we know from reports that the parking lot was sinking, and everyone looked away, see no evil hear no evil. Nobody knew anything. Really? Not very credible. 

And we will hear from Ambassador Dennis Ross, the former US Peace Process Envoy and he’ll have a few words to say about that. 


Mr. Guterres, you said you were horrified about the terrorist attacks. In our petition, 100,000 people said you could not pretend to be horrified by this news because for the last decade, UN Watch sent countries and yourself warnings about UNRWA staff support for terrorism. The UN did nothing but to attack the messenger. The United Nations repeatedly and, UNRWA especially, attacked us, saying we are against refugees when we are doing the work that the UN failed to do, exposing their own teachers and schools principals who were regularly encouraging and promoting terrorism. You cannot pretend to be horrified, because for 10 years UN Watch has warned you. 

A few bad apples? Really it’s not a few bad apples. We documented hundreds and in every case when an UNRWA teacher glorified Hitler, glorified Hamas terrorist attacks in not once instance was there not one peer who said I’m shocked, you are such a bad apple, this is not what we do. On the contrary, all of them liked it. And when you go on the likes, other UNRWA teachers liked these messages. It’s not rotten apples, it’s rotten to the core. 


This is the moment that the international community has to decide if an agency that is supposed to be humanitarian is actually complicit in barbarism, it’s a moment where the funds are frozen and we can take action. That’s what this conference is about. Everyone will have their own views of what they want to say, I’m speaking for myself but I know I’m speaking for many. We are at this turning point and the next few weeks will be crucial. We are going to hear from our experts and victims today, and at the end of the conference, I will share where we will go forward and take action.

Thank you all for coming. 



Closing remarks: 

Thank you Congressman Ritchie Torres for your very powerful remarks. We heard earlier from Chairman Chris Smith from the Republican party, we now have your voice, as a leading voice, in the Democratic party. Indeed as Ambassador David Satterfield, the U.S. envoy on Humanitarian Affairs for the Middle East, really for Gaza, said, it is his understanding that from both parties, there is no longer a will to fund UNRWA. The opposite, there is a clear will not to fund UNRWA. We are seeing it in legislation. And again, in this event, we had both Republican and Democratic voices. And those who voted for Chris Smith’s bill in the House Foreign Affairs Committee were both Republicans and Democrats. This is very significant as we move forward. This was the last lawmaker that we heard from and now, I’ll just share with you a few remarks that I think express some of the views from our stakeholders today.

Where do we go forward from here? 

To wrap up, we are in a unique moment, as never before, a majority of donor states to UNRWA have frozen funding and they are saying they will reinstate it depending on these two inquiries, which are due in the next month or two. We know these inquiries are not exactly independent and it’s quite likely that they are going to say that everything is okay and to recommend funding be reinstated. But, we have this moment, and our summit today, the first-ever summit to explore alternatives to replace UNRWA, I believe we can identify five areas of action going forward:

     1. Members of parliament worldwide have met here and they have pledged to work together to unite in bringing in their fellow members of parliament to pressure governments to change their approach and look for alternatives beyond UNRWA.


2. Beyond petitions and appeals, there will be hearings in parliaments. I hope to participate in hearings in the European Parliament, Swiss Parliament, other parliaments as well.


    3. As follow-up to our summit, we need to monitor closely the work of these inquiries. OIOS, the Office of Internal Oversight is number one. The Second is the independent review panel headed by former French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna and three Scandinavian groups, each of which has in the past expressed some sort of bias against Israel or in favor of UNRWA. So there are very serious questions, but we have to look at the terms of reference and the work of these inquiries and monitor them carefully. 


     4. We need to develop working groups, from the participants, we have expertise and we could develop a program of action for governments to seriously consider alternatives to UNRWA, to help the people of Gaza, to make sure that their humanitarian needs are not compromised in any possible way, but to provide aid in a manner that is not designed to perpetuate the problem for years which the Swiss foreign minister in 2018, Ignazio Cassis said is “a perverse logic, UNRWA is part of the problem, not the solution.” So we need working groups to use our expertise and to help governments find a program of action.


     5. I believe that there is an avenue we need to explore about criminal accountability. When you see a terror tunnel right under the headquarters with cables directly linking the UNRWA headquarters to a key asset of Hamas, and you see numerous members of senior UNRWA managers – in 2017 there were two UNRWA managers who were elected to the Hamas politburo with Yayha Sinwar – we have to explore criminal accountability. What did people know? What did senior managers know about the UNRWA social worker who kidnapped the lifeless body of Yonatan Samerano? What did they know about the terror tunnels? What did they know about 42, at least, UNRWA officials who were part of the Hamas operations and about 1,200 to 1,400 who also are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad? What did they know and when did they know it? That’s number one. What did they know about the terror tunnels, what did they know about the 42 at least UNRWA staff who are members of Hamas operations. We could look at criminal accountability whether it’s in Israel, the United States, the European Union, or even the international criminal court. Finally, it’s not just the managers who may have accountability, but the hundreds we have identified. In the UNRWA terrorgram, we identified a group of 3,000 UNRWA teachers. And previously, for the past 10 years, we have identified 200 UNRWA teachers and school principals, who routinely glorified Adolph Hitler, nazis, and Hamas terrorist attacks. In the United Kingdom, they recently, on January 19th, prescribed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terror organization on the basis that this organization praised the October 7th terrorist attacks, the atrocities, and that this amounted to encouraging and promoting terrorism. The UNRWA school teachers and principals, and other employees that we identified, you can see their names on our website, UNWatch.org, there’s a section on UNRWA with all of our reports from the past 10 years, these named individuals, it’s not only a slap on the wrist for a social media neutrality violation, they can be held criminally accountable for encouraging and promoting terrorism. We know there may be immunity, but there may not be immunity for some of these criminal acts.

So I think these are 5 areas of action where we can move forward from this summit. I want to conclude by thanking all of you watching around the world. Once again in the past 24 hours, more than 100,000 of you signed our petition to call for an alternative to UNRWA, to support peace over terrorism, which I’m going to present to the Secretary-General. Thank you to everyone who showed your support. Your support around the world is the wind in our sails. If you want to stay informed about next steps, go to unwatch.org, sign up on our website, you can put in your email to subscribe to our newsletter. Follow us on social media, on Twitter @UNWatch or myself, @HillelNeuer, the same for Instagram and Facebook. Show your support, follow us, spread the information. We want to make the Middle East a better place. This began on October 6th, we were looking to the Abraham Accords and that is still a potential, so let’s do everything to support peace and reconciliation, fight the terrorists, and indeed let’s try to make this world a better place, and to explore alternatives beyond UNRWA. Thank you to all of our participants, all of our speakers, thank you to our incredible team who organized this event, and everyone else who worked so hard to make this event a possibility. Thank you very much.  

UN Watch