Document spells out allegations against 12 UN employees Israel says participated in Hamas attack

The agency says it will be forced to halt operations within weeks if funding isn't restored.

ByTIA GOLDENBERG, NAJIB JOBAIN and JACK JEFFERY Associated Press AP logo
Monday, January 29, 2024
Document spells out allegations against 12 UN employees
The allegations against staffers with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees prompted Western countries to freeze funds vital for the body, which is a lifeline for desperate Palestinians in Gaza.

TEL AVIV, Israel -- An Israeli document obtained Monday spelled out allegations against a dozen U.N. employees the country says took part in Hamas' Oct. 7 assault - claiming seven stormed into Israeli territory, including one who participated in a kidnapping and another who helped to steal a soldier's body.

The allegations against staffers with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees prompted Western countries to freeze funds vital for the body, which is a lifeline for desperate Palestinians in Gaza.

The U.N. condemned "the abhorrent alleged acts" and fired nine of the accused workers, who include teachers and a social worker. Two are reportedly dead, and the last is still being identified.

FILE - United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a news conference, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Gaza City.
FILE - United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a news conference, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Gaza City.
(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The accusations come after years of tensions between Israel and the agency known as UNRWA over its work in Gaza, where it employs roughly 13,000 people.

Despite the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the besieged territory - where Israel's war against Hamas has displaced the vast majority of the population and officials say a quarter of Palestinians are starving - major donors, including the U.S. and Britain, have cut funding.

With the majority of its budget in doubt, and because UNRWA spends contributions as they come in throughout the year, the agency says it will be forced to halt operations within weeks if funding isn't restored.

'SIGNIFICANT GAPS' REMAIN IN CEASE-FIRE TALKS

The threat to the U.N. agency came as Israel said cease-fire talks held Sunday were constructive but that "significant gaps" remained in any potential agreement. The talks are meant to bring about some respite to war-torn Gaza and secure the release of more than 100 hostages still held in the territory.

Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan told reporters in Beirut that discussions are continuing but that the group is still insisting on a more permanent cease-fire before releasing any more hostages.

The prime minister of Qatar, which has served as a key mediator with Hamas, was more upbeat, saying U.S. and Mideast mediators had reached a framework proposal for a cease-fire and hostage release to present to the militant group. Speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said the mediators had made "good progress."

MORE| State Dept. pauses funding for UN agency amid allegations employees involved in Israel attack

United Nations Relief and Works Agency has fired 12 UNRWA employees after allegations that they were involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Israeli forces are meanwhile still battling Palestinian militants in different parts of Gaza, even in areas where the army has been operating for months.

Israel issued an evacuation order to residents in the western part of Gaza City, urging them to head south. The military also said it had battled militants and carried out airstrikes in recent days in other parts of northern Gaza, which was pummeled in the first weeks of the war and where Israel has claimed to have largely dismantled Hamas.

Militants also fired a barrage of around 15 rockets at central Israel for the first time in weeks. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

The war was sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and saw some 250 people taken captive, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel responded with an intense air, sea and ground offensive that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, most of them women and minors, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count.

The war has also threatened to set off a wider regional conflict. In the latest example of high tensions, the U.S. announced that three of its troops were killed in a strike blamed on Iran-backed militias in Jordan.

DETAILED ALLEGATIONS AGAINST UNRWA WORKERS

The Israeli document, which has been shared with U.S. officials and was obtained by The Associated Press, lists 12 people, their alleged roles in the attack, job descriptions and photos. The findings detailed in the document could not be independently confirmed.

The document said intelligence gathered showed that at least 190 UNRWA workers were Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives, without providing evidence.

It said of the 12 workers, nine were teachers and one a social worker. Seven of the employees were accused of crossing into Israel on Oct. 7. Of those, one was accused of taking part in a kidnapping, another of helping to take away a dead soldier and three others of participating in the attacks.

Ten were listed as having ties to Hamas and one to the Islamic Jihad militant group. Two of the 12 have been killed, according to the document. The U.N. previously said one was still being identified.

The allegations have stoked longstanding tensions between Israel and UNRWA. Israel says Hamas uses the agency's facilities to store weapons and launch attacks. UNRWA says it does not knowingly tolerate such behavior and has internal safeguards to prevent abuses and discipline any wrongdoing.

Even before the latest allegations, the agency's commissioner, Philippe Lazzarini, had announced that he was ordering an external review of the agency's operations and its safeguards.

Israel has long been critical of the agency and accuses it of helping to perpetuate the 76-year-old Palestinian refugee crisis. Foreign Minister Israel Katz said he canceled a Wednesday meeting between Israeli officials and Lazzarini, and called on the UNRWA head to resign.

CALLS TO RESUME FUNDING

The U.N. says the entire agency should not be penalized over the alleged actions of the dozen workers, who it says will be held accountable. It has called for the donors to resume funding.

A coalition of 20 aid groups, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam and Save the Children, also called for funding to be restored, saying UNRWA's delivery of humanitarian assistance "cannot be replaced."

The United States, the agency's largest donor, cut funding over the weekend, followed by more than a dozen other countries. Together, they provided more than 60% of UNRWA's budget in 2022.

UNRWA provides basic services for Palestinian families who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding the country's creation. Refugees and their descendants now number nearly 6 million across the Middle East. In Gaza, they are a majority of the population.

UNRWA is unique in the U.N. system because it is only focused on one national group, with refugees from other conflicts falling under the purview of the agency known as UNHCR.

Since the war began, most of Gaza's 2.3 million people have come to depend on UNRWA's programs for "sheer survival," including food and shelter, Lazzarini said.

A quarter of Gaza's population is facing starvation as fighting and Israeli restrictions hinder the delivery of aid. Communications Director Juliette Touma warned that the agency would be forced to stop its support in Gaza by the end of February.

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Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Jeffery from London.