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Has Israel changed its line on the 'evidence' against UNRWA?

Israel says UNRWA intel now 'based on surveillance', after earlier 'confessions' claim
4 min read
29 January, 2024
A new report claims Israel's intelligence against UNRWA staff is based on surveillance, seemingly overriding earlier claims of confessions from detainees.
Earlier reports claimed that much of the evidence against UNRWA was based on confessions from detainees [Getty]

Israeli intelligence services now claim that UNRWA members' movements were surveilled on 7 October, following earlier reports from officials that the allegations against the UN agency's employees were based on "confessions" gleaned through interrogation.

The New York Times on Sunday said its reporters had reviewed intelligence documents on Israel's allegations against UNRWA, which included a list of implicated individuals and their alleged involvement in the 7 October attack.

"The dossier said that Israeli intelligence officers had established the movements of six of the men inside Israel on Oct. 7 based on their phones; others had been monitored while making phone calls inside Gaza during which, the Israelis say, they discussed their involvement in the Hamas attack," the NYT report says, referring to a dossier reportedly handed to US officials in recent days.

"Three others got text messages ordering them to report to muster points on Oct. 7, and one was told to bring rocket-propelled grenades stored at his home, according to the dossier."

The allegations fall within Israel's intelligence capabilities, as the Israeli occupation tightly controls communication lines and can identify phone users from their sim cards.

For this reason, militants operating in Gaza have used closed telephone lines to coordinate attacks - evidence of which has been seen in videos posted by Hamas' armed wing during the current conflict.

However, the new claims about surveillance evidence against UNRWA staff come after reports that the allegations were largely based on confessions from detained Palestinians.

On Saturday, a senior Israeli official was quoted by Axios as saying: "A lot of the intelligence provided information that pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers and the use of the agency's vehicles and facilities during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack".

The unnamed senior official also said that evidence pointed towards "active participation of UNRWA staffers and the use of the agency's vehicles and facilities during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack".

The NYT report on Sunday, based on the dossier seen by its reporters, made no mention of confessions.

The earlier reports of confessions were widely criticised by observers, adding to long-standing criticism of Israel's treatment of detainees and allegations of torture.

"They haven’t been ‘shown’ to be anything. There have been accusations - which should be investigated - made by Israel based on (coerced?) confessions from detainees," journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote on Twitter, echoing wider scepticism of the claims.

Diaa Al-Kahlout - the Gaza Bureau chief of The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed - was recently released from a weeks-long detention by Israeli forces in Gaza.

After his release, Kahlout attested to the torture methods used by Shin Bet, including keeping him kneeling for 25 of the 33 days in detention.

Israel has also used alleged evidence from voice calls between militants in Gaza earlier in this conflict, including in the aftermath of the 17 October Al-Ahli Hospital bombing.

Israel used the recordings to back claims that the bombing was the result of a failed rocket launch by Palestinian groups.

A number of Palestinian journalists said that the language, syntax, accent and dialect pointed to a fabrication.

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It was also highlighted that it would be highly unlikely that militants would discuss sensitive matters over the phone, due to the pervasive nature of the Israeli occupation.

Israel's history of claims about Gaza and its civilian institutions – many of which Israel has attempted to link to Hamas – have caused many to question why many Western states were quick to pull funding from UNRWA before independently verifying the evidence.

"Although the United States has yet to corroborate the Israeli claims itself, American officials say they found them credible enough to warrant suspending aid," the NYT report says.

While more evidence is yet to emerge, many have highlighted that UNRWA, which provides support for millions of Palestinians, has long been a thorn in the side of the Israeli occupation. Israel has also killed over 150 UNRWA staff in Gaza since 7 October.

"We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza," Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said after the defunding was announced.

Chillingly, many have interpreted Katz's statement to mean that UNRWA has allowed the Palestinian population to rise, echoing the broader sentiment of Israeli hardliners.