Israel subjects UN workers to torture

A badly damaged UNRWA facility in Gaza City on 10 February.

Omar Ishaq DPA

Israel is abusing UNRWA employees detained in Gaza in order to extract forced confessions against the agency, with detainees describing being subjected to acts of torture.

The forced confessions are likely to be used by Israel in an attempt to incriminate UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees. Israel is seeking to starve UNRWA out of existence through smears and unsubstantiated allegations aimed at drying up the agency’s voluntary funding.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the embattled agency, told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that Israel continues to block the provision of life-saving aid as part of its “insidious campaign” to push UNRWA out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More than a dozen countries, including top donors US and Germany, froze funding or suspended future support for UNRWA after Israel alleged that 12 of its employees were involved in the 7 October attacks led by Hamas.

The allegations were made public by the agency on 26 January – the same day that the UN’s World Court stated there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza.

Israel has not presented the UN with evidence substantiating its allegations. Despite this, UNRWA dismissed the employees in question, the UN secretary-general ordered an investigation and an independent review of the agency’s adherence to neutrality is expected to make its findings public in the coming days.

During the Security Council meeting on Wednesday, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, accused UNRWA of “creating a sea of Palestinian refugees, millions of them, indoctrinated to believe that Israel belongs to them.”

UNRWA provides government-like services to 5.9 million registered Palestine refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The agency is mandated by the UN General Assembly to serve the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were displaced from their homeland during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and “as a result of the 1967 and subsequent hostilities,” as well as their descendants.

Palestinian refugees’ right of return is enshrined in UN General Assembly resolution 194. Israel has denied Palestinians from exercising this right because doing so “would alter the demographic character of Israel to the point of eliminating it as a Jewish state,” as the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia stated in a 2017 report.

Right of return

Several UN special rapporteurs stated in June 2023, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, that “since 1948, both the General Assembly and the Security Council have consistently called upon Israel to facilitate the return of Palestinian refugees and provide reparations.”

The special rapporteurs affirmed that “the right of return constitutes a fundamental pillar of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.”

Around two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians are refugees. Nearly every Palestinian in the territory has been displaced from their home in the past six months and Israel has gunned down people attempting to return to the areas from which they were displaced.

A majority of Gaza’s population is now concentrated in Rafah along the boundary with Egypt, raising fears of a mass expulsion from the territory.

At least 178 UNRWA employees are among the 34,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza since 7 October.

Israel has banned UNRWA from delivering aid to Gaza’s north as children are dying of hunger and dehydration, in violation of consecutive orders from the International Court of Justice to allow the unimpeded flow of aid.

Lazzarini told the Security Council that “we demand an independent investigation and accountability for the blatant disregard for the protected status of humanitarian workers, operations and facilities under international law.”

Forced confessions

UNRWA staff released from Israeli detention told their employer that in addition to ill treatment that may amount to torture, they were “subjected to threats and coercion” and pressure during interrogations to incriminate the agency.

These “forced confessions against the agency [included] that the agency has affiliations with Hamas and that UNRWA staff took part in the 7 October attacks against Israel.”

According to UNRWA, some staff members were “detained during the performance of their official duties for the UN, including while working at UNRWA installations and in one case during a coordinated humanitarian movement.”

Detained UNRWA staff were subjected to a litany of abuses, they say, such as beatings, including by doctors, attacks by dogs and threats of rape and electrocution. The agency said that its employees underwent treatment akin to waterboarding and had guns pointed at them.

UNRWA staff also experienced “verbal and psychological abuse; threats of murder, injury or harm to family members; humiliating and degrading treatment; being forced to strip naked and being photographed while they are undressed; and being forced to hold stress positions.”

“Possibly thousands” detained in Gaza

The agency has collected information from hundreds of Palestinians – men, women and children – who were detained in Gaza since the beginning of Israel’s ground operation in late October last year.

Palestinians in Gaza have been detained by Israeli forces while sheltering in UNRWA facilities under the protection of the UN flag since mid-November. They have also been detained while attempting to flee south, while working in hospitals or in the sanctity of their homes.

Overall, “possibly thousands of Palestinian men and boys, and a number of women and girls,” have been detained in Gaza, the UN human rights office said in mid-December.

UNRWA says that as of 4 April, it has documented the release of more than 1,500 detainees from Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing point with Israel, including 43 children and 84 women.

Detainees said they were taken in trucks to various detention centers in Israel and “held incommunicado in between periods of interrogation, sometimes for several weeks,” according to UNRWA.

The transfer and detention of detainees outside of occupied territory are war crimes that violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Israeli authorities subjected Palestinians – “men and women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities,” according to UNRWA – to ill treatment throughout their detention.

UNRWA staff observed “signs of trauma and ill treatment” including dog bite wounds among the released detainees upon their arrival to Kerem Shalom checkpoint on the Gaza-Israel boundary. Many were transferred to hospitals in Gaza due to injury or illness.

Released detainees said they were forced to sit on their knees for hours on end while blindfolded and their hands tied.

They described ill-treatment including “physical beatings, threats of physical harm, insults and humiliation such as being made to act like animals or getting urinated on, use of loud music and noise.” Detainees were also deprived of food, water, sleep and toilets and prevented from praying.

Tightly locked handcuffs caused “open wounds and friction injuries,” according to UNRWA, while detainees had their ribs broken and shoulders dislocated as a result of beating with metal bars, rifle butts and boots.

Sexual violence and threats

Men and boys who were sheltering at an UNRWA installation were forced to strip naked and remained naked during their detention. Men and women were subjected to sexual violence and harassment, threats of rape and were forced to strip in front of soldiers and “photographed and filmed while naked.”

A 41-year-old man who was detained told UNRWA that detainees were subjected to electrical shocks through their anuses, causing another man he was detained with to get sick and die.

A woman who was detained said that an Israeli intelligence officer displayed her neighborhood on a computer screen and asked them about individuals residing there. “She said if you don’t confess with all [the] information, we will bomb your home and kill your family,” the woman told UNRWA.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club says that Israel “refuses to disclose information on the number of people from Gaza it has detained over the past six months, or on where they are being held,” Reuters reported.

Al Mezan, a Palestinian human rights group based in Gaza, says that Israeli forces have detained at least 3,000 people in the territory, who are “subjected to multiple forms of cruelty, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment from the moment they are arrested.”

Their detention and interrogation “occurs without any judicial oversight or legal protection, in blatant defiance of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the rights group adds.

Around 1,650 Palestinians from Gaza are being imprisoned by Israel under its Unlawful Combatants Law in total isolation and denied the right to a lawyer or legal representation.

“Detainees held under this law are neither granted the status of prisoners of war under the Third Geneva Convention, nor afforded the protections of civilian detainees under the Fourth Geneva Convention,” according to Al Mezan.

Starvation and torture

A lawyer with the rights group recently visited Ashkelon and Ofer prisons, where some 300 Palestinians from Gaza not held under the Unlawful Combatants Law are being detained pending investigation.

Al Mezan’s lawyer met with approximately 40 detainees, who provided “harrowing accounts of torture and inhumane treatment,” including sleep deprivation and starvation “as a form of torture and collective punishment.”

A 19-year-old told the rights group that three of his fingernails were removed during interrogation, that a dog was unleashed on him and he was placed in a stress position for prolonged periods during three days of interrogation.

Al Mezan’s lawyer “reported that all detainees suffer from acute emaciation, fatigue and back curvature due to being forced to bend their backs and heads while walking.” Many were unable to “recall the names of people present in the room” due to the physical and psychological abuse, the rights group said.

According to Al Mezan’s lawyer, “in his more than 20 years of working with detainees, he had never encountered conditions as appalling as those observed at Ofer prison.”

The rights group said that the serious harm caused to Palestinians from Gaza in Israeli detention situates it “within the legal framework of the crime of genocide.”

Al Mezan added that Israel’s use of “systematic and widespread torture” constitute crimes against humanity and called on the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants.




I think charges should be brought against all government members, including Canada, in all countries that are supplying Israel, as we all know they are enabling these illegal actions of Israeli personnel

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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.