UNRWA is sued by Israeli victims of Oct. 7 Hamas attack

FILE PHOTO: UNRWA Commissioner-General Lazzarini attends a briefing in Geneva

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United Nations Palestinian refugee agency was sued on Monday by dozens of Israelis who accused it of aiding and abetting the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the plaintiffs said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) spent more than a decade helping Hamas build what they called the "terror infrastructure" and personnel needed for the attack.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages for what they allege was UNRWA's "aiding and abetting Hamas' genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture," which they said violated international law and the federal Torture Victim Protection Act.

UNRWA declined to comment, saying it had yet to be served with the lawsuit.

The agency has said it takes accusations of staff misconduct seriously, and terminated 10 staff members accused by Israel of involvement in the attack. Two others died, it has said.

UNRWA's commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, and several current and former agency officials are also defendants.

The plaintiffs include 101 people who survived the attack or had relatives who were killed.

While many of their accusations have been made by Israel's government, the plaintiffs want UNRWA held liable for allegedly funneling more than $1 billion from a Manhattan bank account to benefit Hamas, including for weapons, explosives and ammunition.

The plaintiffs accuse UNRWA of providing "safe harbor" to Hamas in its facilities, and letting its schools use Hamas-approved textbooks to indoctrinate Palestinian children to support violence toward and hatred of Jews and Israel.

They also said the attack was "foreseeable" to the defendants, regardless of whether they knew the specifics.

"We are talking about people who have been killed, lost family members and lost homes," Avery Samet, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview. "We expect damages will be substantial."


The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants killed 1,200 people, while about 250 other people were abducted, according to Israeli tallies.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have since been killed in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, health officials in the Hamas-ruled enclave have said.

Several countries including the United States halted funding to UNRWA after Israel alleged that staff members were involved in Hamas' attack.

In April, Norway called on international donors to resume funding UNRWA, after a UN-authorized independent review found that Israel had not provided evidence supporting its accusations that hundreds of UNRWA staff were members of terrorist groups.

On Monday, Lazzarini urged resistance to Israeli efforts to disband UNRWA.

"If we do not push back, other U.N. entities and international organizations will be next, further undermining our multilateral system," Lazzarini said at a meeting of the agency's advisory commission in Geneva.

Established in 1949 after the first Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA provides schooling, healthcare and humanitarian aid in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It is funded almost entirely by U.N. member states.

The case is Estate of Kedem et al v United Nations Relief and Works Agency et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 24-04765.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Geneva and Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)