Gazans report UNRWA staff stealing, selling aid: watchdog

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A watchdog group is sounding the alarm, saying Gazans are reporting that employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) are allegedly stealing and selling off humanitarian aid materials. 

UN Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday cited numerous reports published by Palestinians in an UNRWA-related chatroom claiming that UNRWA staff are stealing aid and selling it for profit, while those who report it face reprisals. Israeli and some U.S. officials have accused UNRWA of masquerading as a relief organization while supporting Hamas’ attacks on Israel. 

Amid the ‘rampant theft,’ the watchdog further claimed that UNRWA Commissioner-General Philipe Lazzarini ‘turns a blind eye’ to serious problems within the management of aid distribution by the agency. Lazzarini, meanwhile, recently called for countries to increase direct cash assistance to Gazans because, although ‘there is more food available… it still does not mean that the food is accessible.’

The chatroom – which the watchdog group notes is also riddled with antisemitic slurs and posts celebrating Iran’s attack on Israel – is run by a former UNRWA employee, Haitham al-Sayyed, according to UN Watch. The watchdog group noted that Al-Sayyed was removed from UNRWA in 2016 after he publicly called out the agency for hiding an UNRWA map that denied the existence of Israel while U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was holding a press conference at a school funded by the agency. 

‘While Haitham al-Sayyed was supposedly fired from UNRWA, he is still considered by many in the chat rooms as an important figure in the organization who holds sway with the senior administration,’ UN Watch said. The watchdog group said some UNRWA staff, ‘frustrated by inaction and even complicity of senior staff in these thefts,’ have confided in al-Sayyed ‘in the hope that he can get UNRWA’s top officials to listen.’

On Jan. 6, al-Sayyed posted a message sent to him by a UNRWA employee working in an emergency shelter set up at a school in Gaza, complaining in Arabic that ‘the displaced people in the external shelter do not get their right to food and non-food aid, but rather it is distributed at night and sold in front of our eyes.’ The employee said about 150 bags of diapers were distributed at night to those inside the school. 

The employee also said the school remained without electricity for over a month after someone stole diesel fuel from the shelter, but later ‘the thief was exposed, and the principal was informed, but to this day he is still working with us.’ The message also said a ‘young engineer with great morals’ had previously been in charge of the school, but when he prevented ‘night administration’ from stealing from the store after dark, ‘he was arbitrarily transferred on charges of embezzlement.’ 

The UNRWA worker reported that a female teacher put in charge of the morning administration ‘did not take any steps to stop these crimes until we became suspicious that she is complicit with them, and unfortunately, this evening, [the] manager had a hand and support in the operations, so it was very easy for him to transfer whoever he wants on charges of embezzlement.’ 

According to a screenshot of a Telegram message published by UN Watch, a member of the chatroom group, Dr. Izzat Shatat, wrote that a ‘director of a school warehouse came now with 50 cartons of food that were distributed in UNRWA schools and sold them to a merchant for 350 shekels per carton, equivalent to $100.’ 

‘How did he take out this amount of cartons? Where is the administration about this?’ Shatat asked.

Another UNRWA employee, Mohammed Musa al-Sawalhi, recounted in the chatroom on Feb. 20 how he witnessed some UNRWA employees stealing aid and heard that others were hoarding aid in their houses. He claimed, ‘80% of employees in the shelters have no morals or dignity,’ and said family members of one director were caught on video stealing aid. 

‘When will the directors of UNRWA centers in schools, especially Rafah Preparatory Girls School B, stop stealing the food and needs of the displaced?’ another group member wrote on March 1. 

UN Watch detailed how, on March 22, ‘a heated debate erupted in the chatroom where some UNRWA employees accused other employees of not giving them access to a medicine cabinet.’ 

One member commented, ‘From the past wars, I knew some employees personally, and I trusted them to be good people, but the soul is evil. Some of them were stealing on a daily basis as if it were a prize. This war revealed a lot and some of it was documented with photos, videos, and audio.’

A spokesperson for UNRWA told Fox News Digital, ‘We saw this report and are looking at what are very serious claims. We will provide an update when and if we have more information.’ 

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