UNRWA says Israel used 'atrocious' methods while detaining employees

UN agency is suffering from a funding crisis after donors withdrew following Israeli allegations

Displaced Palestinians wait to receive UNRWA) aid in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. Reuters
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Israel has resorted to “atrocious” methods while detaining UN employees and has forced them to make false confessions, an official from the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) told The National on Monday.

Israel has accused about a dozen UNRWA employees of taking part in the Hamas attack on southern Israel, which killed around 1,200 Israelis, with a further 240 kidnapped.

Israel's retaliatory military campaign has killed more than 31,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to health authorities.

UNRWA rejects Israel's accusations that the agency has employed "terrorists" and has accused Israel of waging a “deliberate and concerted” campaign against it to undermine its operations in Gaza and ultimately prevent it from providing vital services to Palestinians in the future.

The agency said its employees who had been detained by Israel reported that they were subjected to a range of "atrocious" methods including torture.

“Our staff have reported atrocious events while they were detained and during interrogations by the Israeli Authorities. These reports included torture, severe ill-treatment, abuse and sexual exploitation,” UNRWA communications director Juliette Touma told The National.

“Some of our staff have conveyed to UNRWA teams that they were forced into confessions under torture and ill-treatment,” Ms Touma said. These false confessions were in response to questioning about relations between UNRWA and Hamas and staff members' alleged involvement in the 7 October attack, she said.

Ms Touma said UNRWA has protested to "the Israeli authorities about these detentions in writing, referencing detention and ill-treatment of our staff". The agency has not received a response from the Israeli authorities.

Israel's accusations against UNRWA, which provides vital services to Palestinian refugees, prompted major donors including the US, UK, Germany and Japan to suspend funding to the agency in late January.

On Monday, Ireland's President Michael D Higgins condemned the "propaganda campaign" against the UN over Gaza as a "scandalous travesty".

Mr Higgins urged countries to follow Ireland’s lead and increase aid funding to UNRWA.

On the first day of Ramadan, Mr Higgins said every country must to do “all in its power” to avoid the most extreme humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

“The situation we are now witnessing in Gaza is one from which the global public must not be distracted or avert its gaze,” he said in a statement.

“It is a matter of life and death. The blockading of food and aid must immediately be stopped."

Ms Touma said the lack of funding "is putting our staff in Gaza at risk and has serious implications on our operations in Gaza and around the region".

Mr Higgins' appeal came after Canada and Sweden announced over the weekend that they are resuming their funding of UNRWA. Both countries had suspended funding in January after Israel accused UNRWA staff of being involved in the Hamas attack.

On Saturday, Sweden announced an initial disbursement of $20 million after receiving assurances of extra checks on UNRWA's spending and personnel.

Canada said on Friday that it would resume funding to UNRWA "because of the dire humanitarian situation on the ground", but did not elaborate.

Ireland pledged €20 million in additional support for UNRWA on Monday.

The crisis comes as the delivery of aid to the Palestinian enclave has collapsed, with only a fraction of the food needed getting in and very little reaching the northern areas of the enclave, where hospitals say children have started dying of malnutrition.

Before the conflict started, Gaza relied on 500 lorries entering daily. UNRWA said on Friday that in February an average of nearly 97 lorries were able to enter Gaza each day, compared with about 150 a day in January.

The UN has repeatedly complained about lack of access and says Israel is responsible for facilitating the delivery of aid.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 10:50 AM