UNRWA Teachers Held Israeli Boy, Elderly Woman Hostage for Hamas

(Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
February 2, 2024

JERUSALEM—At least two teachers for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza separately held captive Israeli civilians abducted on Oct. 7.

One of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency teachers smuggled a young Israeli boy between locations in Gaza, including a major U.N.-linked hospital. The other shut an elderly woman in his mouse-infested attic and fed her a meager diet that included UNRWA rations. After about 50 days in captivity, Hamas freed both of the Israelis in a deal with Israel.

The Washington Free Beacon agreed to withhold the released hostages’ names and other information in order to protect their privacy.

"It's unbelievable that the United Nations backs up such activities," the boy's mother told the Free Beacon.

The revelations—elements of which were first reported by Israel’s Channel 13 news station—come as UNRWA faces a reckoning over its ties to Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian terror group that rules Gaza. Hamas holds significant sway over UNRWA and exploits the agency’s aid and facilities to support its terror operations, according to a declassified Israeli intelligence dossier obtained by the Free Beacon.

Nearly half of UNRWA’s some 12,000 employees in Gaza either work for Hamas or its affiliate Islamic Jihad or have close relatives who do, Israeli officials said. At least 13 UNRWA workers, including seven teachers, allegedly participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack in southern Israel, which started the Gaza war, and four employees allegedly helped take hostages. A government spokeswoman could not immediately confirm if the UNRWA teachers who held the boy and the woman were among the seven identified by Israel.

The Israeli intelligence convinced the United States and more than a dozen other countries to suspend donations to UNRWA, and the United Nations vowed an investigation of the agency. But U.N. officials have called for an immediate resumption of funding, saying UNRWA is vital to the distribution of international aid in Gaza amid Israel’s fierce war against Hamas.

"No other entity has the capacity to deliver the scale and breadth of assistance that 2.2 million people in Gaza urgently need," several U.N. agencies said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

A UNRWA teacher worked with a network of Gazans to hold the young Israeli boy captive. The boy was twice detained in one of the largest local hospitals, which receives support from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. A medical staffer from the hospital also held the boy in his home for several weeks, the boy's mother said.

Medical professionals and hospitals have been deeply implicated in Hamas’s hostage scheme—one aspect of Gazan society's widespread participation in the atrocities of Oct. 7. The boy's mother said an ordinary Gazan man appears to have abducted her son at knifepoint that day, and Gazan children looted her house.

"There has to be international support for civilians in Gaza no matter what," she said. "But the world needs to understand that the civilians are not uninvolved, so to speak, in terrorism. [Gazans] have educated their children to be involved, and we saw them here on Oct. 7."

Another UNRWA teacher, a father of 10, imprisoned the elderly Israeli woman alone on the third floor of his house for nearly two months. The attic had a bed and a view of the Mediterranean Sea but was unfinished, with exposed wires and no running water. Mice and cats came in through the walls, and the nights could be bitterly cold.

The woman only ever saw the teacher and, when he was away, an armed guard. A language barrier prevented her from speaking with the men.

As the weeks passed, the UNRWA teacher brought the woman less and less to eat, until she was receiving just one small meal each day. When the woman complained of hunger, the teacher began giving her energy bars in UNRWA-branded packaging that read, "Not for retail sale." She suspected the food was meant for Gazan school children. When the woman asked for writing materials, the teacher gave her a UNRWA-branded notepad.

Most upsettingly to the woman's family, she was not provided the medications or medical care she needed.

"I don't really care who was holding my mother—Hamas or UNRWA," the woman's son told the Free Beacon. "What matters is that she was kept in very harsh and unhygienic conditions."

On the woman’s final day in the attic, she met the teacher’s daughter. The daughter, who spoke English, shared that her father was a teacher at a UNRWA school in Gaza and had nine other children.

That night, the elderly woman was taken to the same hospital where the young boy was held, along with many other hostages. The two were among 105 people—including 81 Israeli women and children—whom Hamas released as part of the weeklong truce agreement with Israel. More than 130 Israeli hostages are believed to remain in Gaza in dire conditions. Among them is the boy's father.

The United States on Tuesday called for "fundamental changes" to UNRWA before funding is restored. But Israel argued that UNRWA needs to be completely eradicated as part of a broader "de-radicalization" of Gazan society.

"Consistent with his 3D vision for peace, requiring the destruction of Hamas and demilitarization of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken forcefully of the need for de-radicalization in Gaza," Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said in a briefing here on Tuesday. "UNRWA is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is a Hamas front, and it's time to put it behind."

In addition to UNRWA’s Hamas ties, Levy pointed to agency schools’ and teachers’ record of glorifying terrorism against Israel. A recent report by the nonprofit U.N. Watch, Levy noted, details how teachers in a 3,000-member UNRWA staff chat group cheered on the terrorists as they killed, raped, and abducted Israeli civilians on Oct. 7.

"May Allah keep their feet steady and guide their aim," wrote Israa Abdul Kareem Mezher, an UNRWA elementary school teacher in Gaza. "Pray for the mujahidin," he added. "God protect them and bring them back safe."

Days later, on Oct. 10, Mezher endorsed a threat by Hamas "to execute the civilian hostages we took" and "broadcast it in audio and video."

Published under: Gaza , Hamas , Israel