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War on Gaza: Unrwa staff 'harassed and obstructed' by Israel in West Bank

Internal document reveals Israeli forces beat agency's employees and used its facilities during military raids on refugee camps since 7 October
A man wearing a jacket bearing the logo of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa), in the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank on 30 January 2024 (AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
A man wearing an Unrwa jacket in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, on 30 January 2024 (AFP)

Staff working at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) in the occupied West Bank have been subject to sustained harassment and obstruction by Israeli forces since the war on Gaza began five months ago, according to a report seen by The Guardian on Tuesday.

An internal Unrwa document recorded hundreds of incidents where staff were beaten at military checkpoints and the Israeli army used the agency's facilities to launch violent raids on Palestinian refugee camps. 

In one incident, two Unrwa staff were forcefully made to leave their marked UN vehicle at gunpoint at a checkpoint near Bethlehem, while the vehicle was searched by Israeli officers who made "reference to the staff belonging to Hamas".

They were then made to kneel down, and were blindfolded, handcuffed with cable ties and beaten, before a senior officer intervened. 

In an example of obstruction, a shipment of medicine earmarked for Unrwa health centres was held up by Israeli customs in Jordan for over two months. It was only cleared on Sunday, hours after The Guardian contacted Israeli authorities. A customs spokesperson denied there had been a delay.

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The internal document also cites examples of Unrwa facilities being used by Israeli troops during military operations in the West Bank, including a raid on al-Faara refugee camp on 8 December.

At least 10 security forces had entered a clearly marked UN health centre, taking up positions with their firearms pointed towards the camp. Six Palestinians were killed during the raid, including a 14-year-old child. 

'Pattern of harassment'

"Unrwa staff [in the West Bank] have been verbally abused, subject to identity checks and searches, and required to lift their clothing to demonstrate the absence of weapons," the internal document states. 

"Increasingly egregious violations of privileges and immunities of the UN have been recorded, including entries into Unrwa installations by armed personnel… as well as damage to Unrwa installations incurred during the course of such operations."

Unrwa spokesperson Juliette Touma said the incidents detailed were "part of a wider pattern of harassment that we are seeing against Unrwa in the West Bank and Jerusalem".

An Israeli spokesperson told The Guardian that it had "no issues with Unrwa in the West Bank.  

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"We are not trying to harass them. There is nothing we intentionally do to disturb their important work. We are unable to verify these claims and we have not been presented with evidence [for them]. We have a good relationship with Unrwa and other organisations in the West Bank," the spokesperson said.

The report comes two months after Israel alleged that 12 of Unrwa's 30,000 employees were involved in Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on 7 October that killed around 1,200 people.

A string of western countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Germany, suspended funding to the agency following the allegations. Some of them did so without having seen any evidence of the claims, MEE reported last month. 

Upon learning of the allegations, Unrwa dismissed 10 of the employees (two others were dead) in a process that the head of the agency admitted amounted to "reverse due process".

The agency has said that the funding suspensions, as well as Israeli calls for Unrwa's abolition, have left it at "breaking point".

A number of EU countries, Canada and Australia have since announced that they are resuming funding for the agency.

Unrwa was established in 1949 - a year after the Nakba (or catastrophe), during which 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel - to provide healthcare, education and humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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