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UNRWA report says Israel coerced some agency employees to falsely admit Hamas links

Displaced Palestinians wait to receive United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) aid, in Rafah

(Reuters) - The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said some employees released into Gaza from Israeli detention reported having been pressured by Israeli authorities into falsely stating that the agency has Hamas links and that staff took part in the Oct. 7 attacks.

The assertions are contained in a report by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (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.

UNRWA communications director Juliette Touma said the agency planned to hand the information in the 11-page, unpublished report to agencies inside and outside the U.N. specialised in documenting potential human rights abuses.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

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.

OPERATIONS IN CRISIS

UNRWA, which provides aid and essential services to Palestinian refugees, is at the centre of a crisis over Israeli allegations made in January that 12 of its 13,000 staff in Gaza took part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The Israeli accusations led 16 countries including the United States to pause $450 million in UNRWA funding, throwing its operations into crisis. UNRWA fired some staff members, saying it acted in order to protect the agency's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, and an independent internal U.N. 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.

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

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

Concrete complaints of inappropriate behaviour 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.

The spokesperson said freed detainees are subject to Hamas' 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 U.S. has been by far the biggest donor to its $1.4 billion annual budget.

The Israeli army levelled new accusations at UNRWA on March 4, saying it employed over 450 "military operatives" from Hamas and other armed groups, and that Israel has shared this intelligence with the United Nations.

INTERROGATION

Later that day, the head of UNRWA warned of "a deliberate and concerted campaign" aimed at ending the agency's work, citing comments by Israeli 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 U.N. 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.

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 Feb. 19.

The Hamas-led Oct. 7 assault killed 1,200 people in Israel and resulted in another 253 being abducted, according to Israeli tallies. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip during the Israeli offensive launched in response, according to health authorities in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

UNRWA has condemned the Oct. 7 attacks, saying the Israeli allegations against the agency - if true - are a betrayal of U.N. values and of the people UNRWA serves.

The U.N. investigators said on Feb. 29 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.

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Angus MacDowall and James Mackenzie, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)