Israel escalates criticism of UN agency in Gaza

UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave.

Smoke rises following an explosion in the Gaza Strip (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)
Smoke rises following an explosion in the Gaza Strip Smoke rises following an explosion in the Gaza Strip (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP) (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Israel has ramped up its criticism of the embattled UN agency for Palestinian refugees, saying 450 of its employees were members of militant groups in the Gaza Strip, though it provided no evidence to back up its accusation.

Major international funders have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars from the agency, known as UNRWA, since Israel accused 12 of its employees of participating in the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people and left about 250 others held hostage in Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.

The UN envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, said on Monday there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualised torture” and other cruel and inhuman treatment of women during the attack.

The attack sparked an Israeli invasion of the enclave of 2.3 million people that Gaza’s Health Ministry says has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

Aid groups say the fighting has displaced most of the territory’s population and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe.

UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza, is the biggest aid provider in the enclave.

The allegations on Monday were a significant escalation in the accusations against the agency.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, did not provide names or other evidence to back up the vastly increased number of UNRWA employees it said were militants.

“Over 450 UNRWA employees are military operatives in terror groups in Gaza – 450. This is no mere coincidence. This is systematic. There is no claiming, ‘we did not know’,” Mr Hagari said.

UNRWA in a statement accused Israel of detaining several of its staffers and forcing them, using torture and ill treatment, into giving false confessions about the links between the agency, Hamas and the October 7 attack on Israel.

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

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu visits the UK Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (Aaron Chown/PA)

After Israel’s initial accusation against UNRWA, the agency fired the accused employees and more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about 450 million dollars, almost half its budget for the year.

Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, had no direct comment on the new Israeli allegations.

“UNRWA encourages any entity that has any information on the very serious allegations against UNRWA staff to share it with the ongoing UN investigation,” she said.

Two UN investigations into Israel’s allegations were already under way when the EU said on Friday it will pay 50 million euros to UNRWA after the agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.

Mr Hagari also released a recording of a call he said was of an UNRWA teacher describing his role in the October 7 attack.

“We have female captives. I caught one,” the male voice is heard saying in Arabic. A man on a second call, alleged to be an Islamic Jihad militant who Israel also claimed was an UNRWA teacher, is heard saying “I’m inside with the Jews’.”

The military named the men, though the man in the first call identified himself in the recording by a different name. The military said that name may have been a nickname. The military did not provide evidence as to their employment with UNRWA.

Benny Gantz is meeting US officials (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
Israel Palestinians US Blinken Benny Gantz is meeting US officials (Mark Schiefelbein/AP) (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The accusations came as Benny Gantz, a top member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet, met US officials in Washington while talks were under way in Egypt to broker a ceasefire in Gaza before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.

US vice president Kamala Harris met Mr Gantz, who came to Washington in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Biden administration intensifies its efforts to push more humanitarian aid into war-battered Gaza.

White House officials said Mr Gantz, a centrist political rival of Netanyahu, requested the meeting and that the Democratic administration believed it was important that Ms Harris sit down with the prominent Israeli official despite Mr Netanyahu’s objections.

President Joe Biden, Ms Harris and other senior administration officials have become increasingly blunt about their dissatisfaction with the mounting death toll in Gaza and the suffering of innocent Palestinians as the war nears the five-month mark.

“The president and I have been aligned and consistent from the very beginning,” Ms Harris said in an exchange with reporters shortly before meeting Mr Gantz. “Israel has a right to defend itself. Far too many Palestinian civilians, innocent civilians have been killed. We need to get more aid in, we need to get hostages out, and that remains our position.”

Kamala Harris met Benny Gantz at the White House (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Kamala Harris Kamala Harris met Benny Gantz at the White House (Jacquelyn Martin/AP) (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The White House, in a statement following the meeting, said Ms Harris and Mr Gantz discussed the urgency of completing a hostage deal to free more than 100 people believed still to be in captivity in Gaza following Hamas’s attack on Israel. She also reiterated the administration’s support for a temporary extended ceasefire that would facilitate the release of hostages and allow for a surge of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza.

Although Mr Gantz holds many of the same hardline views as Mr Netanyahu, he has been seen as more open to compromise on critical issues, including the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, violence flared between Israel and Lebanon, amid inflamed tensions across the region.

An anti-tank missile fired into northern Israel from Lebanon killed a foreign worker and wounded seven others on Monday, Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service said. The Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon did not immediately claim responsibility for Monday’s strike.

Hours later an Israeli air strike in southern Lebanon killed three paramedics from Hezbollah’s health arm, Lebanon’s state media said.

US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday to meet Lebanese officials in an attempt to reduce tensions.

The near-daily clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have killed more than 200 Hezbollah fighters and at least 37 civilians in Lebanon. Around 20 people have been killed on the Israeli side, including civilians and soldiers.