Israel accuses UNRWA of hiring hundreds of 'terrorists' as agency claims torture of staff

Military claims UN Palestinian refugee agency employed 'over 450 terrorists' belonging to groups including Hamas

Displaced Palestinians take shelter in a school run by UNRWA in Rafah. AFP
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Israel on Monday accused the UN agency for Palestinian refugees of employing hundreds of “terrorists”, shortly after the embattled agency said Israeli authorities had tortured some of its staff.

UNRWA has faced a funding crisis since Israel in January accused about a dozen of its employees of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel.

An international uproar has led to the agency, which provides vital aid to Gaza, having its funding slashed.

Two UN investigations into Israel’s allegations are ongoing.

The European Commission, the third biggest donor to UNRWA after the US and Germany, has demanded a separate audit and wants to appoint experts to carry it out.

On Monday, Israel vastly increased the scope of its accusations against UNRWA, saying the agency employed more than 450 terrorists from groups including Hamas.

“According to intelligence, over 450 terrorists belonging to terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip, mainly Hamas, are also employed by UNRWA,” an Israeli military statement said.

The military released what it said were recordings of “a terrorist working as an Arabic teacher at an UNRWA school … describing his entry into Israeli territory and stating that he is holding female Israeli hostages” during the October 7 attack by Hamas.

The allegations came after UNRWA accused Israeli authorities of detaining and mistreating several of its staff from the Gaza Strip.

Why are western countries cutting funding to UNRWA? - video

Why are western countries cutting funding to UNRWA, Gaza's main aid organisation?

Why are western countries cutting funding to UNRWA, Gaza's main aid organisation?

“Our staff have reported atrocious events while they were detained and during interrogations by the Israeli authorities,” UNRWA said in a statement to The National.

"These reports included torture, severe ill-treatment, abuse and sexual exploitation.

“Some of our staff have conveyed to UNRWA teams that they were forced to confessions under torture and ill-treatment” while being asked about Hamas's October 7 attack.

“These forced confessions as a result of torture are being used by the Israeli authorities to further spread misinformation about the agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA.

“This is putting our staff in Gaza at risk and has serious implications on our operations in Gaza and around the region.”

UNRWA said it still has not received a response from Israeli authorities.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, accused Israel of waging a “deliberate and concerted” campaign against the agency to undermine its operations, and “ultimately” end them.

“Part of this campaign involves inundating donors with misinformation designed to foster distrust and tarnish the reputation of the agency,” Mr Lazzarini said.

“More blatant is the Israeli Prime Minister openly stating that UNRWA will not be a part of postwar Gaza.”

Speaking to reporters late on Monday, Mr Lazzarini confirmed that the UN agency is preparing to publish a report based on testimonies of more than 100 people that accused Israeli troops of abuse.

"We heard stories of people not only having been systematically, humiliated we had quite a lot about people have been being obliged to be naked picture naked, being subjected of verbal and psychological abuse," said Mr Lazzarini.

"There have been the threat of use of electrocution ... a lot of sleep deprivation ... use of dogs to intimidate the people."

He also mentioned that he had heard a number of "humiliating situations" in which people, ranging in age from 15 to over 80, were forced to wear diapers due to lack of access to toilets for "days, if not weeks".

Updated: April 09, 2024, 10:50 AM