U.N. aid worker is second charged by Israel for helping Hamas

UNDP debris removal in Gaza. (Credit: UN Volunteers)

Another aid worker has been arrested by Israeli security forces for allegedly helping Hamas.

Officials with Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet announced that Wahid Abdallah al Bursh was arrested last month on charges of having infiltrated the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) in order to help Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group that also functions as the governing authority in the Gaza Strip.

Security officials say Bursh used his position at UNDP to support Hamas through a program that funded the rebuilding of homes damaged during the paramilitary group’s recent battles with Israel.

“The investigation exemplifies the manner in which Hamas takes advantage of international aid agencies’ resources, intended to serve as humanitarian aid for Gaza’s civilian population,” Shin Bet said in a statement.

Israeli officials say Bursh joined UNDP as an engineer in order to support Hamas. He supposedly helped build a makeshift jetty to help Hamas naval forces, notified the group when tunnel entrances and arms were found by UNDP and convinced managers to prioritize the rehab of Hamas-owned houses. Information was obtained through investigations and the confession of Bursh, said Shin Bet. Bursh was arrested on July 16 and officially charged Tuesday.

Bursh is the second Palestinian aid worker charged recently with infiltrating a humanitarian organization in order to benefit Hamas. Mohammed El-Halabi, the director of operations in Gaza for World Vision was said to have diverted tens of millions of dollars in cash and support to Hamas, a claim World Vision has strongly disputed.

UNDP provides development and humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Its stated objective in the region is “to improve the economic and social conditions of the Palestinian people by identifying their social and economic needs and by establishing concrete projects to that end.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that it informed the head of UNDP and the office of the U.N. Secretary-General of the charges against the U.N. staffer. It urged the U.N. to investigate its programs and condemn Hamas for infiltrating aid programs.

A rubble removal project at Shujaiyah, Gaza, is funded by Sweden and implemented by UNDP. (Credit: UNDP)

A rubble removal project at Shujaiyah, Gaza, is funded by Sweden and implemented by UNDP.
(Credit: UNDP)

“Over a decade ago, Hamas sought to use the UNDP to funnel funds to its terrorist coffers,” said Dore Gold, Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a letter to UNDP head Helen Clark. “I know you share with me the outrage of Hamas exploiting international humanitarian aid organizations for its own nefarious purposes. …We must do everything we can to prevent Hamas from undermining our efforts.”

The return to fighting between Gaza and Israel in 2014 left more than 11,000 homes destroyed. It was the third war with Hamas since 2008. Strict rules set out by the U.S., European Union and others do not allow aid money to support Hamas, since it is listed as a terrorist organization. That has allowed Israel to conduct strict checks along the border before humanitarian aid enters Gaza.

Bursh worked as a part of the recovery effort, managing the transport of rubble. Israeli authorities told UNDP that he managed the transport of 300 tons of rubble from a UNDP removal project to a location run by Hamas. That is about 7 truckloads out of the nearly 26,000 managed by UNDP at the time.

Like World Vision, UNDP cited that it undertook transparency and accountability measures to prevent such a diversion from happening and is conducting an internal review to determine whether the allegations are true.

“UNDP stands behind the professional work of its staff and personnel, specifically in areas as complex and challenging as the rubble removal project, where the risk of endangering civilians and staff is high if strict measures and operating procedures are not adequately followed,” said UNDP in a statement. “The rubble removal project is considered essential for the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza following the conflict. Mr. Al Bursh should be accorded all due legal process and has the right to a fair trial.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.