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UN Report Describes Abuse and Dire Conditions in Israeli Detention

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Gazans released from Israeli detention described graphic scenes of physical abuse in testimonies gathered by United Nations workers, according to a report released on Tuesday by UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian detainees described being made to sit on their knees for hours on end with their hands tied while blindfolded, being deprived of food and water and being urinated on, among other humiliations, the report said. Others described being badly beaten with metal bars or the butts of guns and boots, according to the report, or forced into cages and attacked by dogs.

The New York Times has not interviewed the witnesses who spoke to UNRWA aid workers and could not independently verify their accounts. None of the witnesses were quoted by name. Still, some of the testimonies in the report matched accounts provided to The Times by more than a dozen freed detainees and their relatives in January, who spoke of beatings and harsh interrogations.

Israeli forces have arrested thousands of Gazans during their six-month campaign against Hamas, the Palestinian armed group. The Israeli military says it arrests those suspected of involvement in Hamas and other groups, but women, children and older people have also been detained, according to the UNRWA report.

The Israeli military and the Israeli prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the report. But asked about similar accusations of abuse in the past, Israeli officials have said that detainees are held according to the law and that their basic rights are respected.

UNRWA staff gathered testimonies from more than 100 released Gazans arriving at the Kerem Shalom crossing over several months. Palestinian medics would occasionally rush freed prisoners who were injured or ill directly to area hospitals, the report said, adding that they sometimes bore “signs of trauma and ill-treatment.”

Many of the detainees are taken to military holding facilities inside Israel, from which many of them are then funneled into Israel’s civilian prisons. At least 1,500 detainees had been released by the Israeli authorities at Kerem Shalom as of April 4, the report said.

The detainees’ treatment in prison included “being subjected to beatings while made to lie on a thin mattress on top of rubble for hours without food, water or access to a toilet, with their legs and hands bound with plastic ties,” the UNRWA report said.

In the report, one freed prisoner described how an Israeli officer threatened to kill her whole family in an airstrike if she did not provide the Israelis with more information. Another said he had been forced to sit on an electrical probe that burned his anus.

Some freed Gazans told aid workers that they had been beaten on their genitals, aggressively searched and sexually groped, the UNRWA report said. Women said they had been forced to strip in front of male officers, the report said, suggesting that some of the incidents “may amount to sexual violence and harassment.”

When presented with the findings in a draft of the UNRWA report that was leaked last month, the Israeli military said that all mistreatment of detainees was “absolutely prohibited,” adding that all “concrete complaints regarding inappropriate behavior are forwarded to the relevant authorities for review.” It said medical care was readily available for all detainees and that mistreatment of detainees “violates I.D.F. values.”

The Israeli military said last month that it was aware of the deaths of 27 Palestinians in its custody, at least some of whom were already wounded. And at least 10 Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank, have died in Israel’s civilian prison system since Oct. 7, according to the official Palestinian prisoners’ commission and Israeli rights groups, including Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, whose doctors attended some of the autopsies.

UNRWA, a key provider of humanitarian assistance in Gaza, has come under scrutiny in recent months after Israel accused it of harboring numerous Hamas members in its ranks. Major foreign donors, including the United States, subsequently suspended their funding for the agency, although some have since resumed it.

Israel has said that at least 30 of the group’s 13,000 staffers in Gaza participated in the Hamas-led assault on Israel on Oct. 7 or its aftermath.

In response to the accusations, UNRWA fired staff members who were accused of being Hamas members. Two investigations have been opened into the allegations — one by the U.N.’s internal investigations body and another by independent reviewers appointed by the U.N. secretary general.

In the report released on Tuesday, UNRWA said some of its own staff members had been beaten, threatened, stripped, humiliated and abused while being detained by the Israeli authorities. It said that during interrogations, they were pressured to say that UNRWA had affiliations with Hamas and that its staff members took part in the Oct. 7 attack.

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