Pro-Israel online influencing operation has been targeting UNRWA: Report

Washington, DC – An online influencing operation using fake social media accounts has targeted the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which cited a new report from a disinformation watchdog.

Fake Reporter, an Israeli group that studies online disinformation, found that the accounts echoed Israeli government accusations about links between the UN agency and Hamas, spreading them in comments on social media websites.

As described by Haaretz, the report — released in Hebrew — says the influencing campaign relied on a network of hundreds of social media accounts, as well as three newly created “news websites”, to promote pro-Israel narratives.

But in recent weeks, the influence campaign has focused its efforts on UNRWA, an agency that supports Palestinian refugees.

The report showed that the fake accounts have been replying to posts from United States legislators and Western media outlets with screenshots of a Wall Street Journal story claiming connections between the UN agency and Hamas.

“The people targeted the most with such comments by the campaign’s avatars were American politicians, specifically the social media accounts of Democratic lawmakers, and accounts considered pro-Israel,” the Haaretz article reads.

“An analysis of the campaign’s content over the span of the war reveals that UNRWA has been the single most popular topic.”

That Wall Street Journal report on UNRWA, which relied entirely on uncorroborated Israeli accusations, was co-authored by a former Israeli soldier.

Marc Owen Jones, an expert in online influence campaigns and an associate professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, had also noted the same network of fake accounts last month.

“Discovered hundreds of sock puppets promoting Israeli propaganda on X, Threads, FB & Insta. It also includes ‘fake’ websites,” Jones wrote in a series of social media posts on February 2.

“Recently, it has been spreading anti-UNRWA #disinformation, & trying to undermine solidarity between Palestinians & Black people.”

The fake accounts, which Jones described as a “massive cross platform pro-Israel deception operation”, come at a time when Israel is aggressively pushing to end the mandate of UNRWA.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government said 12 members of the UN agency participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which killed more than 1,030 people.

UNRWA opened an investigation into the allegations. The UN also appointed an independent panel to review the agency.

The Israeli accusations prompted more than a dozen Western countries, led by the US, to suspend funding for UNRWA, which delivers vital services, including education and healthcare, to millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and across the Middle East.

More than half of Gaza’s population consists of refugees forcibly displaced from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and their descendants.

Rights advocates have warned that the defunding of UNRWA only worsens the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where people are facing the risk of famine amid Israel’s blockade of the territory.

In a published report seen by several media outlets last month, UNRWA said Israeli forces tortured several of its staff members in Gaza to admit to links to Hamas.

In recent weeks, several countries, including Canada and Australia, have resumed their contributions to the UN agency.

But the administration of US President Joe Biden has continued to suspend UNRWA funds, despite repeatedly acknowledging the agency’s vital role in delivering services to Palestinians.

The White House has also backed a foreign funding bill being considered in Congress that would ban US funding for UNRWA.

Several Democratic politicians have called on Biden to restore the assistance. “There’s no doubt that the claim that [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others are making, that somehow UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas, are just flat-out lies,” Senator Chris Van Hollen told CBS News on Sunday.

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