‘Does the UN hold my son?’ mother of murdered hostage asks as families assail UNRWA

At press conference, Hostages and Missing Families Forum airs video of agency worker abducting body, as activists decry management that enabled members to aid October 7 attack

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Ayelet Samerano, mother of murdered hostage Jonathan Samerano, speaking at a press conference on February 21, 2024. (Screen capture)
Ayelet Samerano, mother of murdered hostage Jonathan Samerano, speaking at a press conference on February 21, 2024. (Screen capture)

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum held a press conference Wednesday evening to air the October 7  video in which an UNRWA worker driving a white UN jeep abducts the body of Israeli Jonathan Samerano, who was killed by Hamas terrorists.

In the surveillance camera footage, a white SUV can be seen driving into Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the communities hit hardest on October 7. The vehicle stops in front of three bodies lying on the street and sidewalk beside an overturned picnic cooler.

Two men emerge from the SUV and drag Samerano’s body, stuffing it into the back of the car.

“Does the UN hold my son?” asked Ayelet Samerano, Jonathan’s mother at the press conference. “Do they know where he is? Bring him back to me — are there any other hostages held by UN employees? Even as we’re speaking right now? Where is my son?”

Samerano, 21, was a young DJ who was “full of life, always smiling, always joking,” said his mother, sniffing. “His only weapon was his smile, happiness and charm.”

Samerano was at the Supernova desert rave on October 7 that was attacked by terrorists. He escaped to Kibbutz Be’eri during the Hamas attack where he was killed when terrorists stormed the community. His body was then taken hostage.

Jonathan Samerano was killed on October 7, 2023 and his body taken hostage by Hamas terrorists (Courtesy)

The video was first published by Telegram channel “South First Responders” on October 10, just three days after the mass Hamas onslaught.

The man who emerged from the car to take Samerano’s body was identified on Friday by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant as Faisal Ali Mussalem al-Naami, a social worker with the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Naami is implicated in the kidnapping of Samerano, said Shelly Aviv Yeini, head of the legal team at the Forum.

“Hostage-taking is a war crime,” she said, adding that the Forum demands a comprehensive investigation into the allegations. “We call on UNRWA to not only investigate but to communicate openly with the families and Forum.”

Video showing an UNRWA worker driving a white UN jeep, and abducting the body of Jonathan Samerano, who was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7 (Screenshot)

Jonathan Fowler, a UNRWA spokesperson, had said in response to the video: “It is not possible for UNRWA to verify the footage or photographs and ascertain who the person is. We were not presented with any evidence from the Israeli authorities.

“But given the fact that there is an investigation underway by the highest investigative authorities in the UN, we invite any country, party or institution with information – including information available in the public domain – to provide it to the Office of Internal Oversight Services at UN headquarters to help advance this investigation,” he said.

Former Israeli diplomat Daniel Shek, who heads the diplomacy team at the Forum, said during the press conference that in his 30-year diplomatic career, he had seen that UNRWA “does amazing humanitarian things,” but there have always been issues of misconduct in the UN organization.

“One video like this will erase all the good you’ve done,” said Shek, addressing the agency’s leaders, “and should erase all the good you’ve done.”

Former diplomat Daniel Shek who heads the Hostages and Missing Families Forum diplomacy team at a February 21, 2024 press conference (Screenshot)

Shek added that it is not the role of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum — a volunteer organization that was formed within 72 hours of the October 7 attacks to support the families of the hostages — to inspect UNRWA and review its management, but “clean your house or move out.”

“Those are the two options,” he added. “I cannot believe that people like this man who kidnapped Yonatan — and we know there are others — [I] cannot imagine there weren’t any red flags before he did something like that.”

Israel has revealed the identities of 12 UNRWA staff members who it says “actively participated” in the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught on southern Israel.

The attack saw some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians — under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The US and multiple European countries halted aid to UNRWA last month following Israel’s allegations against staffers. Donors such as Britain and the United States have indicated they will not resume support until the UN’s internal investigation into the allegations ends. A preliminary report is due to be published in the next several weeks.

Among the staff who allegedly took part in the attacks were teachers who worked at UNRWA schools.

Gallant said Friday that UNRWA has “lost legitimacy and can no longer function as a UN body,” and said he has therefore instructed the IDF and defense establishment to transfer responsibilities of aid delivery in the Strip to other humanitarian organizations.

According to Gallant, of the 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza, at least 12% are affiliated with the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups.

“1,468 workers are known to be active in Hamas and PIJ, 185 UNRWA workers are active in the military branches of Hamas and 51 are active in the PIJ military branch,” he said.

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