UNRWA report claims some agency employees admitted Hamas ties under Israeli coercion

11-page document says detained staffers tortured by military to make false accusations, though agency does not provide transcripts of interviews with freed prisoners or evidence

People walk past the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on February 15, 2024. (AFP)
File: People walk past the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on February 15, 2024. (AFP)

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees claimed that some Gazan employees released from Israeli detention reported having been coerced into stating that the agency has Hamas links and that staff took part in the October 7 massacre.

The assertions are contained in a report by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) reviewed by Reuters and dated February 2024, which detailed allegations of mistreatment in Israeli detention made by unidentified Palestinians, including several working for UNRWA.

Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts of coercion of UNRWA staff and mistreatment of detainees, although the allegations of ill-treatment accord with some descriptions by Palestinians freed from detention in December, February and March reported by Reuters and other news media.

UNRWA declined a Reuters request to see transcripts of its interviews containing allegations of coerced false confessions.

In addition to the alleged abuse endured by UNRWA staff members, Palestinian detainees more broadly described allegations of abuse, including beatings, humiliation, threats, dog attacks, sexual violence and deaths of detainees denied medical treatment, the UNRWA report said.

The Israel Defense Forces has said that any mistreatment was “absolutely prohibited,” denied all allegations of sexual abuse and said it was investigating any complaints of inappropriate behavior, according to a previous report on UNRWA’s allegations.

UNRWA, the UN body that provides welfare and humanitarian services for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants, is itself currently under investigation after Israel accused several of its members of taking part in Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 253 were taken hostage.

Earlier this week, the IDF released audio recordings that it says incriminate two additional UNRWA employees who allegedly participated in the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught — bringing the total number of agency workers that Jerusalem says actively participated in the attacks to 14.

“I’m inside, I’m inside with the Jews,” Mamdouh al-Qali, an Islamic Jihad terrorist whom the IDF says was employed as a teacher in a UNRWA school, is heard saying in one recording.

In another recording, a UNRWA teacher can purportedly be heard bragging about kidnapping Israeli hostages.

“We have female hostages, I captured one!” says Yousef al-Hawajara, a Hamas terrorist who worked as a teacher at a UNRWA school in Deir al-Balah, according to the IDF.

The IDF said its intelligence shows that some 450 terror operatives in Gaza, mostly Hamas members, are also employed by UNRWA.

As a result of Israel’s accusation, multiple countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, froze funding for the organization. The investigation’s findings are expected to be published in late April, according to a Thursday update.

Some hostages taken on October 7 who were released from Gaza during a weeklong truce in November also claimed they had been held in the homes of UNRWA members. In addition, throughout the war, the IDF has uncovered instances of the organization being used as a cover for Hamas.

For example, Israel’s military revealed in February that Hamas hid a large subterranean data center directly under the UNRWA Gaza headquarters building in Gaza City. An entrance to the stronghold was found underneath a nearby UNRWA school. The UN agency has claimed not to know about it.

UNRWA communications director Juliette Touma said Saturday the agency planned to hand the information in the 11-page, unpublished report to agencies inside and outside the UN specialized in documenting potential human rights abuses.

“When the war comes to an end, there needs to be a series of inquiries to look into all violations of human rights,” she said.

The document said several UNRWA Palestinian staffers had been detained by the Israeli army, and added that the ill-treatment and abuse they said they had experienced included severe physical beatings, waterboarding and threats of harm to family members.

“Agency staff members have been subject to threats and coercion by the Israeli authorities while in detention, and pressured to make false statements against the Agency, including that the Agency has affiliations with Hamas and that UNRWA staff members took part in the 7 October 2023 atrocities,” the report said.

File: A Palestinian man transports sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

Operations in crisis

UNRWA, which provides aid and essential services to Palestinian refugees, is at the center of a crisis over the Israeli allegations.

The Israeli accusations led 16 countries including the US to pause $450 million in UNRWA funding, throwing its operations into crisis. UNRWA fired some staff members, saying it acted to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, and an independent internal UN investigation was launched.

Norway, which has continued to finance the agency, said on March 6 that many countries that paused their funding are likely having second thoughts, and payments could resume soon. Canada and Sweden have since announced they would resume payments.

Asked by Reuters for comment on the range of allegations in the UNRWA report seen by Reuters, an Israeli military spokesperson didn’t specifically respond to allegations of UNRWA staff being coerced, but said the IDF acts in accordance with Israeli and international law to protect the rights of the detainees.

Concrete complaints of inappropriate behavior are forwarded to the relevant authorities for review, and an investigation is conducted for each death of a detainee by the military police, the spokesperson said, adding Israel denies general and unsubstantiated claims about sexual abuse of detainees.

File: Four Gazans named by the IDF on March 4, 2024 as UNRWA staffers and Hamas members who participated in the October 7 massacre. (IDF Spokesman)

The spokesperson said freed detainees are subject to Hamas’s control and can be forced to denounce Israel or risk “harm.”

Responding to that assertion about the detainees’ credibility, Touma said the report was based on “first-hand testimonies that people told us. In some cases, there were clearly some physical impact on people’s bodies. And also psychological impact. So this is what’s also been documented.”

UNRWA provides education, health and relief services to about 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees around the Middle East. The US has been by far the biggest donor to its $1.4 billion annual budget.


Amid the allegations and the presentation of evidence that the US has called “highly credible,” UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini warned of “a deliberate and concerted campaign” aimed at ending the agency’s work, citing comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and destruction of the agency’s infrastructure in Gaza.

Asked about the latest Israeli accusations, Touma said UNRWA encouraged any entity with information on the allegations against UNRWA staff to share it with the investigation, which is being conducted by a UN oversight body.

Touma told Reuters the document was based on interviews the agency had conducted with dozens of Palestinians freed from Israeli detention to whom UNRWA provided assistance.

Illustrative: Palestinian workers, who were stranded in Israel since the October 7 attacks, cross back into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom commercial border crossing with Israel in the south of the Palestinian enclave on November 3, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

She said she could not provide a more detailed figure and did not know how many of the detainees made the allegations about abuse or being coerced into saying UNRWA has Hamas links.

The report focuses on detainees who were taken out of Gaza for extended periods of interrogation before being returned to Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing from December to February.

Israel seeks UNRWA’s closure

The report said UNRWA had documented the release of 1,002 detainees at Kerem Shalom aged from six to 82 years old as of February 19.

War erupted after Hamas-led terrorists burst into Israel by air, land and sea, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping another 253, mostly civilians, many amid horrific acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel responded with a wide-scale ground and air campaign that the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said has killed at least 30,878 people, mostly women and children. These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

UNRWA has condemned the October 7 massacre, saying the Israeli allegations against the agency — if true — are a betrayal of UN values and of the people UNRWA serves.

The UN investigators said on February 29 that they expected to receive materials soon from Israel relating to its accusations that UNRWA staffers are members of Hamas.

Israel says UNRWA should be shut down.

Reuters has previously interviewed Palestinians detained by Israel during the conflict who have reported mistreatment. They include three men who said they and fellow detainees had been beaten, stripped to their underwear and burnt with cigarettes.

The copy of the report viewed by Reuters did not contain any photographs or identify any of the detainees by name.

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