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Israel escalates its criticism of a UN agency in Gaza. It says 450 of its workers are militants

By TIA GOLDENBERG and RAVI NESSMAN, Associated Press
Published: March 4, 2024, 3:05pm

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel ramped up its criticism of the embattled U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees Monday, 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 Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people and left about 250 others held hostage in Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.

The U.N. envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, said Monday there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized 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 Monday were a significant escalation in the accusations against the agency. Rear Adm. 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,’” 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 Oct. 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.’’

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, 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 U.N. investigation,” she said.

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Two U.N. investigations into Israel’s allegations were already underway when the EU said Friday it will pay 50 million euros ($54 million) to UNRWA after the agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.

Hagari also released a recording of a call he said was of an UNRWA teacher describing his role in the Oct. 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.

The accusations came as Benny Gantz, a top member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet, met with U.S. officials in Washington while talks were underway in Egypt to broker a cease-fire in Gaza before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.

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 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 airstrike in southern Lebanon killed three paramedics from Hezbollah’s health arm, Lebanon’s state media said.

U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Monday to meet with Lebanese officials in an attempt to tamp down 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.

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