The Sneaky No-Good Tricks Israel Is Using to Stop Help Getting to Gaza

Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images
Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

JERUSALEM—Israel is crippling the ability of NGOs and human rights organizations to address the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank, by smearing, threatening and torturing existing aid workers, while limiting or denying visas to people who want to come and help.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the backbone of aid, education and support to millions of Palestinians, has been hard hit by bombing attacks on its staff and infrastructure in Gaza, and by the iniquity of red-tape facing its international staff in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

The U.N. said its first foreign aid worker was killed this week in an Israeli tank attack on his marked vehicle.

Employees have also complained of harassment by the authorities with international staff struggling to get long-term visas and local staff fearing retribution against their families if they speak to the media.

“It’s a very sensitive situation. Staff members have been harassed and are afraid for their families,” UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma told The Daily Beast.

“Prior to Oct. 7, our international staff would get visas for a year. Afterwards, we started to have problems and now the international staff from all U.N. organizations, and other aid agencies get visas for only two months on average which makes it hard for us to carry out our daily work, for staff to get lease agreements and for their children to be enrolled in schools because all of these are tied to their contracts.

“Our employees in Gaza and the West Bank have been threatened with arrest by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and staff driving U.N. cars and wearing U.N. vests have also been targeted. These included a shooting next to one of our cars,” said Touma.

Right-wing Israelis have held regular protests outside UNRWA headquarters in East Jerusalem, damaged property and threatened employees. Israeli protesters recently blocked aid trucks headed for Gaza, pulling food supplies off the vehicles and tearing open bags of grain that were destined for a hunger-stricken population.

The visa problems started to spike after UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini was prevented by Israel from entering Gaza from Egypt earlier in the year.

Although Israeli forces and settlers left Gaza in 2005, the Gaza Strip is still considered occupied under international law because Israel controls the borders, air space, sea shore, population registry and all aid, water and electricity entering the territory.

Israel’s bad relationship with the UNRWA goes back decades but reached breaking point when it accused 12 UNRWA employees of taking part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, but provided no evidence to back its claims, according to the UNRWA, which nevertheless decided to terminate the employment of those named.

Following the accusations, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres ordered an internal investigation into the UNRWA by the U.N. Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), while over a dozen donor countries cut off funding.

In February, the OIOS released an interim, confidential report, available to only diplomats, the U.N. and intelligence agencies. Due to the initial conclusions of the report many donors started quietly refunding UNRWA with little press coverage.

“I think the donors and the U.N. buying into the guilty narrative with no evidence was a strategic mistake,” Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA staffer, told The Daily Beast.

“Previously, wherever there was credible evidence provided against any employee this was thoroughly investigated and action was taken against them, including dismissal. We also regularly update the Israeli authorities with the details of all those employed,” he added.

The U.N. also alleged in a report released last month that Palestinians arrested in Gaza, including its own staff members, had been severely abused and tortured while in Israeli custody and some of the “confessions” about involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks may have been coerced.

“I was in Gaza near the border where the detainees were released. My colleagues said these people were in a terrible state and very traumatized. They gave them food and water and a place to wash near our base. The released detainees started telling us very harrowing stories,” said Touma.

“Some were denied food and water, stripped, while others were not allowed to go to the toilet and forced to wear diapers, and threatened that if they did not confess harm would come to their family members,” said Touma.

There are reportedly visa issues affecting 11 U.N. agencies with 18 visas pending for U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA; six for the World Food Program; six with the U.N. children’s agency; and two with the World Health Organization.

The Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), which represents dozens of aid groups in the West Bank and Gaza, reported at the end of March that 57 aid workers whose visas had expired, including many senior staff, had to leave because they weren’t able to renew them.

A further 60 new visa applications couldn’t be filed because the applicants could not receive recommendation letters from Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs.

The Daily Beast made several media enquiries to the Israeli government for comment, but none was forthcoming.

Shawan Jabarin, the general director of the internationally renowned human rights organization Al-Haq, based in Ramallah, used to have lawyers from around the globe working with him in Ramallah.

“They used to regularly get one-year visas to work with us. Now most of them can’t get visas and one of our volunteers from Ireland was granted only a one-week visa when she came,” Jabarin told The Daily Beast.

Jabarin has also been subject to years in Israeli administrative detention, or detention without trial. He was accused of being a terrorist and banned from leaving the country, until he took his case to the Israeli supreme court.

Al-Haq, and several other Palestinian human rights groups, had their offices raided, sealed and their work banned after Israel accused them too of being terrorist organizations. After legal and international intervention they were able to continue operations.

“The Dutch police also investigated death threats made against some of my colleagues and their families while they were abroad and concluded that the surveillance carried out against my colleagues bore the hallmarks of a ‘state with sophisticated operations and not that of any individuals or a small organization,’ but didn’t name the state,” Jabarin told The Daily Beast.

Israel has also been accused of a smear campaign against the U.N.

Addressing the U.N. Security Council, Lazzarini said an insidious campaign against delivering aid to Gaza was underway.

“It is in this context that the Council is asked to consider the existential challenges facing the agency,” he said.

Gunness said during his years in Jerusalem he was the target of regular attacks and smear campaigns by the Israelis when he was spokesman for UNRWA.

“UNRWA is an irritant to Israel because of its public advocacy where it provides credible and factual information on the ground in Gaza and elsewhere in regards to rights abuses. Israel also believes that if UNRWA goes away the Palestinian refugee problem will go away.

“Because I was the critical face for UNRWA and the spokesman for the international and Arabic press, I was under regular attack in the media from them and other organizations supportive of Israel,” Gunness told The Daily Beast.

“I was also physically threatened on several occasions where I had to leave for my own personal safety.”

The left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz reported that an online influencing operation using fake social media accounts had targeted the UNRWA.

Quoting Fake Reporter, an Israeli group that studies online disinformation, they found that the accounts echoed Israeli government accusations about links between the U.N. agency and Hamas, spreading them in comments on social media websites.

The people targeted most frequently with such comments by the campaign’s avatars were American politicians, specifically the social media accounts of Democratic lawmakers, and accounts considered pro-Israel, Haaretz reported.

Israeli attacks on infrastructure are also having a critical impact on aid organizations’ ability to operate.

“One hundred and sixty U.N. buildings were hit and 178 employees were killed, our convoys were shot at three times,” Touma told The Daily Beast.

As of mid-March, U.N. figures show that 166 buildings were hit in 122 incidents targeting, among others, 73 schools, 14 attacks on 10 health centers, two distribution centers, and 12 attacks on the Khan Younis Training Centers.

In addition to U.N. staff killed, the U.N. says these attacks killed 408 Palestinians seeking shelter in their premises, including children, and injured many more.

The continued attacks have forced a number of aid organizations to halt operations in Gaza.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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