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U.N. Agency in Gaza Fought Hamas Infiltration; Not Hard Enough, Israel Says

U.N. Agency in Gaza Fought Hamas Infiltration; Not Hard Enough, Israel Says


When the United Nations launched an investigation a decade in the past into whether or not a handful of its workers in Gaza had been members of Hamas, it was not lengthy earlier than a senior U.N. authorized officer within the territory began receiving demise threats.

First there have been emails, despatched from nameless accounts, in accordance with three senior U.N. officers primarily based in Gaza at the moment.

Then got here a funeral bouquet, delivered to the primary U.N. compound, labeled with the authorized officer’s identify.

Finally there was a reside grenade, despatched to the compound with its pin nonetheless inside, in accordance with two of the officers.

The U.N. evacuated the authorized officer, a British lawyer and former navy officer, hurrying him to Jerusalem, the three folks mentioned.

Previously unreported episodes like this one, from October 2014, type a part of the again story to the present disaster embroiling UNRWA, the U.N. reduction group in Gaza now sheltering greater than half of the enclave’s inhabitants.

Current and former UNRWA officers say that the company has lengthy taken severely and investigated accusations of infiltration by Hamas, which seized energy in Gaza in 2007. The company has variously responded to ideas from Israel, the United States and its personal networks. It was the sort of problem, they mentioned, that every one help teams working in hostile environments confronted, not distinctive to UNRWA, which has labored within the enclave for many years.

Rather than addressing such points in a scientific course of, they handled them in a piecemeal means largely in non-public, working with officers on the United Nations in New York. Over the years, a number of individuals who had confirmed Hamas hyperlinks had been fired or left the company, together with after the 2014 investigation, present and former officers mentioned.

Israel has lengthy made a broader accusation: UNRWA didn’t go far sufficient to root out Hamas and was unwilling to scrub up systematically. It has mentioned UNRWA is a very compromised group that’s too weak to guard towards infiltration and must be changed by a extra impartial help group.

Last month, Israel accused 12 UNRWA employees members of taking part within the Hamas-led raid on Israel initially of the battle on Oct. 7 or within the raid’s aftermath. It has additionally mentioned that one in 10 UNRWA workers in Gaza are Hamas members.

These two claims — for which Israel offered some proof to the United States, albeit not publicly — have led no less than 19 overseas funders to droop donations for the company. The lack of funding has endangered UNRWA’s existence when the vast majority of Gazans depend upon the group for meals and shelter.

UNRWA’s leaders say the company strives to make sure its 13,000 workers in Gaza uphold requirements of neutrality, often coaching its employees to remain above politics and investigating those that don’t. But they add that it’s inconceivable for UNRWA — like all massive group that attracts its employees from a cross-section of society — to trace the non-public political allegiances of all its workers.

“What we wish to make sure that is that our employees doesn’t have a public political perform, as a result of that might be fully incompatible with the perform of a civil servant,” Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner normal, mentioned in an interview with The New York Times on Friday.

But, Mr. Lazzarini added, “Our workers are a part of the social cloth of Gaza and its ecosystem. And as a part of the social cloth in Gaza, you may have additionally Hamas.”

While Mr. Lazzarini fired many of the 12 workers accused of connections to Oct. 7, he mentioned he had not been capable of personally examine the claims, partly due to the dire state of affairs inside Gaza, and that that they had been fired with out due course of. A separate U.N. investigative unit primarily based in New York is now wanting into the accusations.

In Israel’s view, UNRWA ought to have been much more proactive in defending its neutrality. Israelis have usually mentioned the group has carried out too little to cease Hamas from constructing navy infrastructure near its services, and even from utilizing these services to retailer munitions.

To bolster that argument, the Israeli navy this week led a gaggle of worldwide journalists, together with two for The Times, to one of many many tunnels dug by Hamas beneath Gaza to deal with its navy infrastructure.

Roughly 20 yards beneath an upscale neighborhood of Gaza City, the tunnel ran in a southeasterly route from underneath an UNRWA-run faculty. After passing underneath a serious highway, the tunnel finally led to a subterranean communications hub, filled with servers and pc {hardware}, that lay straight beneath UNRWA’s sprawling headquarters within the territory.

The journalists entered the tunnel by way of openings that had been created by the Israeli navy since its invasion started in late October; earlier than Israel captured the territory, neither the varsity nor the headquarters contained shafts that offered entry from UNRWA services to the tunnel.

The Israeli navy mentioned that the tunnel was shut sufficient to the floor that UNRWA staff ought to have been capable of hear its development. They additionally pointed to wires that led into the bottom from a room contained in the UNRWA compound, which they mentioned led on to Hamas’s subterranean communications hub.

“You need to be very naïve to assume that the UNRWA personnel didn’t know what was taking place underneath their ft,” not least as a result of the development and upkeep of the tunnel would have required aboveground help, mentioned Maj. Nir Dinar, a spokesman for the Israeli navy who accompanied the journalists.

“But whether or not they knew, or whether or not they didn’t know, it’s also vital to say that UNRWA, just like the inhabitants in Gaza, like all of us the truth is, are victims of the terrorist group Hamas,” mentioned Major Dinar.

The Times couldn’t confirm whether or not the wires, which led into the bottom from a room on the bottom stage of the compound, reached the subterranean servers. The tour of the tunnel was led by the navy and The Times was not allowed to maneuver freely in Gaza in the course of the embed.

Mr. Lazzarini mentioned Israel had not introduced the claims in regards to the tunnels to UNRWA’s consideration. He questioned how the company may have been anticipated to know what was taking place so deep beneath the bottom, and famous that the tunnel community — a whole lot of miles lengthy — prolonged far past simply the realm beneath the UNRWA compound.

“I don’t have the capability, navy experience or know-how — and even the mandate — to observe what’s beneath town,” Mr. Lazzarini mentioned.

More typically, he mentioned, UNRWA had little communication with Hamas management, including that he had by no means met Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s chief in Gaza, or his deputy.

“In any humanitarian emergency, we are going to cope with any nonstate actor accountable for a given inhabitants, in any other case you don’t have any entry to the inhabitants,” mentioned Mr. Lazzarini, who has labored for the U.N. and the International Committee for the Red Cross in no less than a dozen nations and territories.

Interaction with Hamas “has at all times been on a technical nature,” he mentioned. Meetings with the group’s political management occur “possibly yearly. Just after we really feel that one thing wants actually to be addressed,” he mentioned.

Aid specialists are skeptical that UNRWA may ever have fully shaken off Hamas’s affect due to the character of working in an authoritarian local weather.

There is “at all times some type of infiltration,” mentioned Kilian Kleinschmidt, a former senior U.N. official who helped lead help operations in a number of nations.

“There has at all times been, in each U.N. workplace I do know, anyone who’s positioned by some means by the federal government or by the fellows who had been in cost, to know what’s happening within the group,” mentioned Mr. Kleinschmidt.

Matthias Schmale, who directed UNRWA’s operations in Gaza from 2017 by way of 2021, described forming a “pragmatic working relationship” with Hamas that was nonetheless “overwhelmed with tensions and disagreements.”

During Mr. Schmale’s tenure, UNRWA fired an worker who was a member of the group’s navy wing. And Mr. Schmale mentioned that, after a “shouting match” with a Hamas official, he efficiently persuaded the group to let UNRWA block off a tunnel that U.N. officers had found close to one among its faculties. In addition to offering shelter throughout wartime, UNRWA operates a whole lot of colleges and well being facilities throughout calmer intervals and offers meals help to greater than one million residents.

“When I say ‘pragmatic working relationship,’ it doesn’t imply agreeing ideologically or justifying what they do. It means creating the area for the place you’re employed,” Mr. Schmale mentioned. “You can’t simply stroll in as UNRWA and construct faculties wherever you want,” he added.

Mr. Schmale was himself compelled to go away Gaza early in 2021 after a backlash from each Hamas and UNRWA’s personal staff over feedback to an Israeli channel through which he was perceived to reward the precision of Israel’s strikes on Gaza.

Israeli leaders, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now wish to substitute UNRWA with a unique company.

But officers from UNRWA and Israel alike warn that such a change can be inconceivable to enact with out worsening the already dire humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

UNRWA has by far and away the biggest pool of help staff on the bottom in Gaza. If the company shuts down, any successor group can be more likely to merely work with the identical workers, making any change beauty, Mr. Lazzarini mentioned. And absent UNRWA’s faculty system, which educates round 300,000 Gazan youngsters, there can be no speedy solution to get many college students again in school, he mentioned.

At a current interagency planning assembly, Ghassan Alian, an Israeli normal who oversees the division throughout the protection ministry that liaises with Palestinian leaders and help teams like UNRWA, informed fellow Israeli officers that Israel ought to push to dismantle the company in the long run, in accordance with a senior navy official current on the assembly.

General Alian additionally warned that any effort to shut the company earlier than the tip of the battle would hurt not solely the civilian inhabitants but additionally Israel’s battle effort, the navy official mentioned. Israel’s capacity to increase its invasion is partly reliant on a practical and impartial help operation for Gazan civilians, in accordance with 4 officers concerned in Israeli navy planning.

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