U.N. Aid Agency Researchers Allege Abuse of Gazans in Israeli Detention

An unpublished investigation by the main United Nations agency for Palestinian affairs accuses Israel of abusing hundreds of Gazans captured during the war with Hamas, according to a copy of the report reviewed by The New York Times.

The report was compiled by UNRWA, the U.N. agency that is itself at the center of an investigation after accusations that at least 30 of its 13,000 employees participated in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. The authors of the report allege that the detainees, including at least 1,000 civilians later released without charge, were held at three military sites inside Israel.

The report said the detainees included males and females whose ages ranged from 6 to 82. Some, the report said, died in detention.

The document includes accounts from detainees who said they were beaten, stripped, robbed, blindfolded, sexually abused and denied access to lawyers and doctors, often for more than a month.

The draft document describes “a range of ill-treatment that Gazans of all ages, abilities and backgrounds have reported facing in makeshift detention facilities in Israel.” Such treatment, the report concluded, “was used to extract information or confessions, to intimidate and humiliate, and to punish.”

The report is based on interviews with more than 100 of the 1,002 detainees who were released back to Gaza by mid-February. The document estimates that 3,000 other Gazans remain in Israeli detention without access to lawyers. Its findings echo those of several Israeli and Palestinian rights groups, as well as separate investigations by two U.N. special rapporteurs, all of whom allege similar abuses inside Israeli detention centers.

The Times was unable to corroborate the entirety of the allegations in the report. But parts of it match the testimony of former Gazan detainees interviewed by The Times.

One such detainee, Fadi Bakr, 25, a Gazan law student who provided documentary evidence that he had been detained in Israel, told The New York Times that he was brutally beaten throughout his detention at three makeshift Israeli military sites.

Mr. Bakr said that he was captured in Gaza City on Jan. 5 and released in early February. He said that while he was held at a detention site near Beersheba, in southern Israel, he was beaten so badly that his genitals turned blue and that there was still blood present in his urine as a result.

Mr. Bakr also told The Times that guards made him sleep naked in the open air, next to a fan blowing cold air, and played music so loudly that his ear bled. Mr. Bakr said he was released after the military appeared satisfied that he had no links to Hamas.

Israel has said that the detentions were necessary to find and interrogate Hamas members after the group’s attack on southern Israel, which killed roughly 1,200 people and led to the abduction of some 250 others, according to the Israeli authorities. Israel says that hundreds of Hamas members have been captured.

Presented with the findings listed in a draft of the report, the Israeli military said in a statement that some detainees had died in detention, including those who had pre-existing illnesses and wounds, without giving more details, and said that every death was being investigated by the military police. The military said that all mistreatment was “absolutely prohibited” and strongly denied any allegation of sexual abuse, adding that all “concrete complaints regarding inappropriate behavior are forwarded to the relevant authorities for review.”

The statement by the Israel Defense Forces said that medical care was readily available for all detainees and that mistreatment of detainees “violates I.D.F. values.”

The military said that its soldiers acted “in accordance with Israeli and international law in order to protect the rights of the detainees.” It also said that it played music at only a “low volume,” to prevent detainees from conferring before interrogations.

The UNRWA researchers interviewed more than 100 detainees who were released without charge through the Kerem Shalom crossing point on the Gazan border. Their findings were then shared with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The rights office declined to comment. UNRWA confirmed the existence of the report but said that its wording had not been finalized for publication.

The agency’s role in its creation is likely to heighten scrutiny of the report’s conclusions. Israel has long charged that the agency operates under Hamas’s influence, indoctrinates Gazans with anti-Israel propaganda, and turned a blind eye to Hamas military activity — all claims that UNRWA denies.

Israel says that at least 30 UNRWA employees played an active role in the Hamas-led attack on Israel or its aftermath, an accusation that prompted nearly 20 countries and institutions to suspend their funding, putting the agency’s future in doubt. UNRWA fired several of the employees and another branch of the United Nations opened an independent investigation.

According to the report, the detainees included individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, intellectual disabilities and cancer. The report said that many had been captured from northern Gaza as they sheltered in hospitals and schools or as they tried to flee south. Others were Gazans with permits to work in Israel who were stranded and later detained in Israel after the war started.

Some detainees, according to the report, told UNRWA investigators that they had often been beaten on open wounds, had been held for hours in painful stress positions and had been attacked by military dogs. Many of the details match accounts given directly to The New York Times by recently released detainees.

Both male and female detainees reported incidents of sexual abuse, the report said. Some male detainees said they were beaten on their genitals, the report said. Some women said they experienced “inappropriate touching during searches and as a form of harassment while blindfolded,” according to the report. It added that some reported having to strip in front of male soldiers during searches and were prevented from covering themselves up.

Rights lawyers say that locating the detainees in the Israeli system is difficult, and they describe the situation as a form of incommunicado detention. Under legislation passed since the start of the war, detainees captured in Gaza do not have the right to see a lawyer for up to 180 days.

Lawyers from HaMoked, an Israeli rights group, said that they had managed to briefly reach some detained Gazans by phone, almost by chance, after calling a military base in Jerusalem and asking if the detainees happened to be at the base.

Bilal Shbair contributed reporting from Rafah, Gaza; Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel; and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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