UN agency accuses Israel of detaining, coercing staffers into false confessions about ties to Hamas

Tel Aviv, Israel CNNThe UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Monday accused Israel of detaining and torturing some of its staffers, coercing them into making false confessions about the agency’s ties to Hamas.

“Some of our staff have conveyed to UNRWA teams that they were forced to (make) confessions under torture and ill-treatment. These false confessions were in response to questioning about relations between UNRWA and Hamas and involvement in the 7 October attack against Israel,” UNRWA spokeswoman Juliette Touma said in a statement.

Israel has accused at least 12 staffers from the UN Relief and Works Agency of being involved in the October 7 terrorist attacks and has alleged that about 12% of UNRWA’s 13,000 staffers are members of Hamas or other Palestinian militant groups. Israeli officials have said some of the information about the 12 staffers involved in October 7 was obtained through cell phone data and other sources. UNRWA says it has fired 10 of the 12 accused staffers and that the other two are dead. CNN cannot confirm the allegations.

Touma said that false confessions elicited “under torture” were being used “to further spread misinformation about the Agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA,” but did not tie those confessions to the allegations against the 12 staffers accused of participating in the October 7 attacks.

The allegations are part of an as yet unpublished report compiled by UNRWA alleging Israel’s widespread physical and psychological abuse of Palestinians detained in Gaza during the war, including 21 UNRWA staff members, some of whom said they were beaten and threatened.

The unreleased report, a copy of which CNN obtained, is largely based on the testimony of Gazan detainees held in Israeli prisons and at military sites and released back into Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing between mid-December and mid-February. An UNRWA spokesperson said that when the report was leaked, the agency had not yet decided whether to release it publicly.

The detainees cited in the report gave testimony of beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse and threats of sexual violence against both men and women detained by the Israeli military. Some of the detainees are also reported to have died while in Israeli custody, at times allegedly as a result of the abuse they suffered in detention.

CNN cannot independently verify all of the accounts of abuse listed in the UNRWA report, but has previously documented similar allegations of abuse by Palestinian detainees.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to the allegations about the torture and detention of UNRWA staffers, but said in a statement that “the mistreatment of detainees during their time in detention or whilst under interrogation violates IDF values and contravenes IDF orders and is therefore absolutely prohibited.” It said that investigations into the deaths of detainees are investigated by the military police and are currently pending.

The Israeli military forcefully denied claims of sexual abuse of detainees, calling them “another cynical attempt to create a false equivalency with the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war by Hamas.” It also denied that detainees are deprived of sleep and said detainees have access to medical care.

UNRWA estimates that at least 4,000 Gazans have been detained by the Israeli military since the start of the war. As of February 19, the agency had documented the detention of 29 children and 80 women, as well as elderly individuals with Alzheimer’s and people with intellectual disabilities.

“UNRWA received widespread reports from released detainees of ill-treatment across all stages of detention. According to individuals released from detention, ill-treatment was used in attempts to extract information or confessions, to intimidate and humiliate, and to punish,” says the UNRWA report, which was first reported by the New York Times.

The report also says that in each of the releases it monitored at Kerem Shalom, “ambulances were required to immediately transport some person due to their injuries or illness.”

The detainees reported being held and interrogated at military sites in Israel, sometimes for weeks on end, before being transferred into the Israeli prison system.

According to the UNRWA report, some detainees reported being stripped, handcuffed and held in the cold with no access to toilets, food or water for over 24 hours. Detainees interviewed by CNN in December also described similar treatment, saying they were held for days on end with little access to food or water.