The United Nations agency tasked with aiding refugees in the Gaza Strip does not carry out exhaustive background checks of its employees, but it delivers a list of its thousands of staff members in the enclave to Israeli authorities annually, current and former officials in the organization said on Monday.
The agency, known as UNRWA, was thrust into a crisis over the weekend, after Israel on Friday accused 12 of the group’s employees of participating in the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 or their aftermath. Several donor countries, including the United States, have temporarily suspended funding to the relief group, raising concerns that access to desperately needed aid in Gaza will be cut back.
Juliette Touma, the director of communications for UNRWA, said the agency wasn’t equipped to carry out extensive background checks of applicants, but she emphasized it performs reference checks and investigates concerns raised about individual staffers.
“We’re a humanitarian organization, not a government,” she said in an interview, noting that the Israeli government had not objected to its latest list of employees. The agency employs about 13,000 people in Gaza.
Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed UNRWA shares lists of workers with Israeli officials, but said they include minimal information and referred to employees as of many months earlier. Mr. Haiat argued that it was UNRWA’s — not Israel’s — responsibility to screen employees.
UNRWA, the largest aid group in Gaza, announced on Friday that it would fire the employees accused of participating in the attacks. (On Sunday, the U.N. secretary general said nine had been dismissed, and the aid agency said two were dead.) UNRWA said that the U.N.’s highest investigative body had started examining the allegations.
Matthias Schmale, the director of UNRWA operations in Gaza from 2017 to 2021, said employees sign a pledge to remain neutral, and they participate in recurring workshops that encourage refraining from engaging in political activity or violence.
“I think we did the best we can in very tense political circumstances and with limited resources,” he said, adding that the team dedicated to enforcing neutrality in Gaza was halved during his tenure because of the Trump administration’s funding cuts. Tamara Alrifai, another UNRWA spokeswoman, said that after President Biden restored funding to the agency, some of those positions were brought back.
Still, Mr. Schmale said, those who violated the organization’s policies faced swift consequences. Eight employees, he said, were dismissed under his watch for neutrality violations, their use of social media and physical abuse. One employee, he said, was discovered to be a member of Hamas’s military wing after UNRWA staff discovered photos proving their membership in the militant group.
Mr. Schmale himself has been caught in controversy. In 2021, Hamas accused him of making remarks that minimized the toll of Israeli strikes during a brief war in Gaza that year, and amid protests he was reassigned by UNRWA. He later walked back the comments and expressed regret over them.
He said on Monday that the “best deterrent” to neutrality violations was discipline, noting Palestinians in Gaza want to keep their jobs with the U.N., especially because of severe unemployment in the territory. The tiny enclave, where more than two million people live, had a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate before the war.
— Adam Rasgon reporting from Jerusalem