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Inside Israel's allegations against U.N. workers in Gaza

The fate of the U.N.’s aid agency for Palestinians is hanging in the balance after Israel’s allegations that U.N. workers participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks.
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A highly anticipated report from the United Nations’ top investigative agency is poised to shed new light on Israel’s allegations that U.N. workers participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, with the fate of the U.N.’s aid agency for Palestinians hanging in the balance.

In the weeks since Israel issued the shocking allegations, key donor nations including the United States have suspended funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, whose role providing food, water, medicine and shelter in the Gaza Strip is a critical lifeline for civilians. Yet the allegations have fueled a raging debate about the limited evidence Israel has produced.

The allegations were conveyed in Israeli officials’ public statements as well as a diplomatic document known as the “UNRWA File,” which was not distributed widely but was given to NBC News.

They center on the claim that at least a dozen UNRWA staffers took part in the Oct 7. attacks and that 1,468 employees — or more than 11% — are “active members” of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second most prominent militant group in Gaza. NBC News can’t verify the identities of the staffers Israel says participated in the attacks, or the veracity of the claims about the evidence.

An initial report from the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which investigates wrongdoing by U.N. staff, is expected in the coming weeks. The U.N. secretary-general’s spokesperson said late last month that the office was still waiting for Israel to hand over evidence and expected to receive it “shortly.” No further updates have been released.

“The investigation remains ongoing,” said U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, adding that investigators planned to visit Israel “soon.” The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, says it’s waiting for that report before deciding whether to restore badly needed funding to UNRWA.

Yet some experts doubt the U.N. can competently investigate itself.

Peter Gallo, a former OIOS investigator, said that the agency’s authority is limited to investigating and punishing U.N. employees and has no mandate to force broader UNRWA reforms. In this case, UNRWA has already terminated the staffers initially accused by Israel.

“So they have no control over them,” Gallo told NBC News. “They can’t require them to turn up for an interview. They can’t threaten them with anything, because they’ve already been fired.”

Several countries -- including the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan -- have suspended funding to the UNRWA agency in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff members participated in the October 7 attack by Hamas militants.
The agency's role providing food, water, medicine and shelter in the Gaza Strip is a critical lifeline for civilians.AFP via Getty Images

The UNRWA allegations mark a new low in a fraught relationship between Israel and the U.N. that has further deteriorated since the start of the war.

Israeli officials have long campaigned for UNRWA to be disbanded. A recent UNRWA report also alleged Palestinian detainees were physically and sexually abused in Israeli custody, while a separate U.N. report found “convincing” evidence that Israeli hostages in Gaza have been raped.

NBC News takes a look at the UNRWA allegations:

Israel’s allegation: Staffers participated in Oct. 7 attacks

In late January, Israel accused 12 UNRWA staffers of involvement in the attacks, according to UNRWA and Israeli officials’ public statements. In the following days, UNRWA said two of those 12 were confirmed dead, although it’s not clear how they died.

The number later grew to 13, according to a diplomatic memo known as the “UNRWA File,” first referenced by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz during the Munich Security Conference in February.

According to a copy of the 13-page document, Israel alleges that six staffers infiltrated Israel on Oct. 7, while another four are said to have helped kidnap Israelis. The memo alleges three employees were summoned by text message the day before the attacks to “arrive armed at the assembly point.” 

In addition to those 13, the memo says that “at least one UNRWA employee supplied logistical support to the infiltration attack and an additional employee was directed to establish an OPS room on Oct. 8,” referring to an operations room.

Israel’s defense minister later raised the number of those allegedly involved further, saying more than 30 UNRWA employees either killed Israeli civilians, kidnapped soldiers or helped detain them.

What Israel says: 

In mid-February, Israel’s military identified the 12 staffers initially accused of involvement, including their photos, dates of birth and job titles. Israel named two that it said were found or arrested inside Israel.

The disclosure included a photo and CCTV footage Israel said showed one of the staffers, an UNRWA social worker, inside Kibbutz Be’eri on Oct. 7 helping move the limp body of an Israeli into a Jeep.

NBC News verified the location of the CCTV footage as Kibbutz Be’eri, but can’t independently confirm the identities of the staffers named by Israel.

An intelligence dossier containing what Israel says is additional evidence was also transmitted to the U.S. and other allies, but has not been made public.

Last week, Israel’s military also released two phone recordings it says further prove UNRWA staffers’ involvement.

In one, a man Israel says was an UNRWA teacher says in Arabic, “We have female captives” and “I captured one.” In the other recording, another man also identified by Israel as an UNRWA teacher says, “I’m inside with the Jews.” 

NBC News can’t independently confirm who is speaking in the recordings, or whether these were edited.

What the U.N. says:

On Jan. 26, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “horrified” by the allegations and immediately launched an investigation.

UNRWA said it immediately fired 10 of the 12 staffers initially accused by Israel who were still alive. It has promised that anyone involved in terrorism “will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.” 

UNRWA said Israel hadn’t presented it with any evidence substantiating that more than 30 staffers were involved. It noted that this number would be a tiny fraction of the agency’s roughly 13,000 staffers in Gaza.

The head of the main United Nations agency supporting people in Gaza alleges that Israel is intent on “destroying” it along with the idea that Palestinians are refugees and have a right one day to return home.
People protest against UNRWA in Jerusalem last month. Mahmoud Illean / AP

Israel’s allegation: UNRWA’s staff is filled with Hamas operatives

In addition to having an armed wing, Hamas is a social movement and the governing authority in Gaza.

Last week, Israel said 450 UNRWA employees are military operatives enrolled in Gaza terror groups.

What Israel says:

Israel has not publicly provided evidence documenting large numbers of UNRWA employees being members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

What the U.N. says:

UNRWA says it first learned about this allegation in the media and has received no evidence from Israel or any other nation to support it. It says it has zero tolerance for terrorism and that the “overwhelming majority” of staff adhere to U.N. principles.

The agency says it conducts “detailed reference checks” on recruits and regularly provides lists to Israel of all its staffers, including their names, job titles and I.D. numbers. UNRWA says Israel has never previously voiced concern about anyone on the list — including the 12 originally accused of participating in Oct. 7.

Last week, UNRWA alleged in a report reviewed by Reuters that some UNRWA staffers, while in Israeli detention during the war, were coerced by Israel into falsely confessing ties between the agency and Hamas, and the involvement of UNRWA staffers in Oct. 7. 

UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma confirmed to NBC News that UNRWA collected written testimonies from previously detained staffers released into Gaza that included those allegations, but said it was unclear whether those testimonies will be made public. Israel has not responded specifically to those allegations other than to say that its military follows international law regarding detainees.

Israel’s allegation: Hamas uses UNRWA facilities for terrorism

Israel says that UNRWA schools, aid depots and headquarters throughout the Gaza Strip have been used by Hamas to launch rockets, store weapons and plan operations.

What Israel says:

Last month, Israel said its forces found a tunnel underneath UNRWA’s main Gaza headquarters containing large quantities of weapons and explosives. Israel said electrical lines directly connected to UNRWA’s headquarters above provided the underground Hamas facility with power.

The Israel Defense Forces released drone footage, video of the weapons it says it found, and video of its troops conducting the operation. NBC News can’t independently verify what the IDF presented. 

Israel has also released videos it says show rocket launches from inside an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun. 

NBC News geolocated the video to an UNRWA primary school in Beit Hanoun, but cannot confirm who launched projectiles seen in the video provided by Israeli officials or when it was filmed.

What the U.N. says:

UNRWA’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini, did not dispute the Israeli allegations about the tunnel, but said UNRWA “did not know what is under its headquarters in Gaza.” He said that during peacetime UNRWA inspects its facilities quarterly, but has been unable to access the site since abandoning it on Oct. 12, when Israel ordered that the area be evacuated.

Lazzarini did not specifically address the allegations that the Hamas underground facility was receiving electricity from the UNRWA headquarters above.

UNRWA has said there have been instances since the mid-2000s, when “armed actors from both sides” have violated the agency’s neutrality, including rockets placed in its schools. The agency says it has “systematically condemned” those violations, protested to Gaza authorities and informed Israel when it occurred.

The agency also said that when it finds suspected tunnels, it seals them by injecting cement and discloses the discoveries publicly.