Israel wary of shutting the 'only functioning body in Gaza'

UNRWA workers accused of kidnapping woman, taking part in kibbutz massacre – report

Citing a US government dossier, NY Times details allegations against 12 staffers at UN agency on Oct. 7 that also include transporting body of dead soldier; 7 suspects are teachers

Displaced Palestinian people sit on benches as they wait outside a clinic of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024 (Photo by AFP)
Displaced Palestinian people sit on benches as they wait outside a clinic of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

Employees of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees kidnapped Israelis, transported ammunition and the body of a dead soldier, and took part in a murderous assault on a kibbutz on October 7, according to a report published late Sunday.

The details, attributed by The New York Times to a dossier provided to the US government, are behind the decision by the agency, UNRWA, to fire 12 workers and prompted many countries to halt their funding for the body over the weekend.

The report said that one UNRWA school counselor from Khan Younis in southern Gaza is “accused of working with his son to abduct a woman from Israel.”

Furthermore, “a social worker from Nuseirat, in central Gaza, is accused of helping to bring the body of a dead Israeli soldier to Gaza, as well as distributing ammunition and coordinating vehicles on the day of the attack,” the report added.

A third employee was “described as taking part in the massacre at a kibbutz where 97 people died” — apparently Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the worst ravaged on October 7 in the Hamas-led onslaught.

The report said the dossier describes the names, details and positions in UNRWA of the 12 workers, and contends that 10 of the workers in question are members of the Hamas terror group while one belongs to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Displaced Palestinians queue to receive aid in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

The report said Israel’s intelligence was gleaned from tracking the phones of six of the people, monitoring phone calls by others who allegedly discussed their involvement in the onslaught, and reading text messages received by three others ordering them to show up at muster points ahead of the assault, including one ordering him to bring RPGs stored at his home.

According to the report, seven of the accused were teachers at UNRWA schools, and two worked in schools in different capacities. The other three were described as a clerk, a social worker and a storeroom manager.

The most detailed accusations in the dossier concerned a school counselor from Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, who is accused of working with his son to abduct a woman from Israel.

Israel’s Channel 13 reported Sunday night that two of the Israeli hostages released from Gaza had testified that they were held in captivity separately by UNRWA workers, sometimes in their homes.

In one case the hostage said they were told by the captor’s daughter that he was an UNWRA teacher, fed snacks labeled and distributed by the UN agency, and eventually moved from place to place through UNWRA facilities to avoid detection as Israeli troops closed in.

It was not immediately clear if this was the same case detailed in the Times.

The report said the US had not been able to verify the details or identities of those accused, but said it found the allegations sufficiently credible and disturbing to order the halt to funding.

Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) agency talk together in the playground of an UNRWA-run school that has been converted into a shelter for displaced Palestinians in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 25, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The newspaper said it had so far only been able to verify the identity of one of the accused, whom it described as “a storeroom manager, whose social media profile lists him as an UNRWA employee and shows him wearing UN-branded clothes.”

On October 7, some 3,000 terrorists stormed across the border into Israel, overrunning military bases and communities and killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians slaughtered in their homes and at a music festival. The attackers also took 253 hostages to Gaza, where about half remain.

The accusations are the latest in a long line of Israeli complaints about the UN agency, such as that it allows anti-Israeli incitement to be taught in its hundreds of schools and that some of its staff collaborate with Hamas. The Trump administration suspended funding to the agency in 2018, but President Joe Biden restored it.

The latest accusations prompted donors, including the US, Germany, Britain, Italy, Australia and Finland, to announce they had suspended additional funding to the agency, and UNRWA said on Friday it had fired several employees over the unspecified accusations.

The agency’s supporters say the allegations against it aim to diminish the long-festering refugee issue and called the cut in funding collective punishment. Last week, UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said he would appoint an independent entity to look into the claims — both “what is true or untrue” and “what is politically motivated.” He also said the accusations were hurting the agency’s already strained operations.

The Commissioner-General of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

There are today 58 designated refugee camps where UNRWA operates, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Despite Israel’s long-running objections to UNWRA, it also continues to cooperate with the agency, reflecting a split in policy in Jerusalem.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the body “must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development” after the Gaza war and called for the resignation of the agency’s head Lazzarini.

At the same time, Chanel 13 published documentation showing that Israel was directly supplying flour and other goods to UNWRA in Gaza.

Meanwhile, three diplomatic sources told the Israel Hayom daily that Jerusalem had the information on the UNRWA workers for weeks but had held back on distributing publicly it because “there was an understanding in the Israeli political system that UNWRA must be preserved in Gaza, because it is the only functioning body in Gaza and without it, the chaos would be even greater.”

The paper claimed that it was not clear why UNWRA had suddenly announced the investigation into its workers and speculated that it was because it was due to be publicly exposed in an upcoming US congressional hearing.

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