Vedant Patel speaks during a press conference

Deputy U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel speaks during a press conference on May 15, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

US State Department Claims It Hasn't Seen Reports of Israel Torturing UNRWA Staff

"The U.S. cut funding to a vital aid agency during a crisis, but isn't up to speed on reports that directly impact that funding?" asked one observer.

A Biden administration spokesperson on Monday attempted to avoid addressing allegations by employees of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees that they were tortured while in Israeli detention by claiming the U.S. State Department has not seen any media reporting on the accusations.

Ryan Grim, The Intercept's Washington, D.C. bureau chief, asked deputy State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel if he believes the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) staff members who say they were tortured by Israeli interrogators into making false confessions about involvement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which led the October 7 attacks on Israel. Israeli officials claimed that at least 12 out of UNRWA's 13,000 staff in Gaza had ties to Hamas and October 7.

"The U.S. cut funding to a vital aid agency during a crisis, but isn't up to speed on reports that directly impact that funding?"

"When you originally talked about the allegations against the 12 staff, you have said that UNRWA itself was the one who forwarded those allegations alone. You said you found them credible, but since then UNRWA itself has said that its staff were tortured by Israel in order to get some of those confessions extracted," said Grim. "Does that change your view of the evidence that was presented by Israel, and if UNRWA was credible enough for you believe the allegations the first time, is UNRWA credible enough when they make an allegation of torture against its staff?"

Patel replied, "I've not seen that reporting, Ryan," adding that "we continue to find the allegations that were laid out a number of months ago to be credible."

The U.S. and more than a dozen other nations suspended funding for UNRWA in the wake of the Israeli allegations. In what UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini later called an act of "reverse due process," the agency terminated nine employees in response to Israel's claims, despite admitting to having no evidence to support their firing.

The European Union and nations including Canada, Sweden, and Australia subsequently reinstated funding for UNRWA, which Lazzarini said "is facing a deliberate and concerted campaign to undermine its operations."

The controversy over UNRWA has unfolded as the agency struggles to provide shelter and humanitarian aid to Gazans, who are suffering not only Israeli bombs and bullets but also a genocidal siege and blockade that are exacerbating growing famine in the embattled enclave.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) this week called Israeli claims that UNRWA is a Hamas proxy a "flat-out lie."

"If you cut off funding for UNRWA in Gaza entirely, it means more people will starve, more people won't get the medical assistance they need, and so it would be a huge mistake," the senator warned.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.