Hamas skimmed $1 billion in UN aid for weapons and tunnels, suit says

For years, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency sent millions of dollars each month to the Gaza Strip to pay employees and support hospitals, schools and other infrastructure, according to a new lawsuit. The money was wired from New York, where the agency has an office, to the West Bank, where financial institutions loaded some of that cash onto trucks to be driven across Israel to Gaza.

The suit, filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan, said some of those dollars ended up funding the military operations of Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled Gaza for nearly 20 years and has pledged to erase the Jewish state. The money trail is at the heart of the case against seven current and former top UNRWA officials who are accused of knowing that Hamas siphoned off more than $1 billion from the agency to pay for, among other things, tunneling equipment and weapons that aided its attack on Israel on Oct. 7.


About 100 Israeli plaintiffs — including at least one who was held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, others who survived the attack, as well as the estates of some who died — are seeking unspecified financial damages. They claim that UNRWA is liable because it helped fund Hamas, which the United States and other countries deem a terrorist organization.

UNRWA has been sued several times since the attacks, with some cases claiming that the agency has abetted Hamas and others attempting to cut off UNRWA’s funding. The case filed Monday goes further, describing how the plaintiffs believe agency money ended up in the hands of Hamas and how the terrorists used its resources in the attack on Israel.

The suit says that in Gaza, unlike other places the agency operates, UNRWA pays its 13,000 local employees in U.S. dollars that must be changed into shekels, the Israeli currency that is used in Gaza, by Hamas-affiliated money-changers who take a cut for the organization.

The lawsuit faces many hurdles, particularly the question of whether a treaty affords the U.N. officials immunity. But if the case proceeds, it could allow other victims of Hamas attacks to seek damages from the U.N. Even if it fails, the suit could pressure nations donating money to UNRWA to reassess their support.

“Hamas did not carry out these atrocities without assistance,” the complaint says. It was “aided and abetted” by senior agency officials who for more than a decade financed Hamas’ “terror infrastructure” and knew that they were “providing Hamas with the U.S. dollars in cash that it needed to pay smugglers for weapons, explosives, and other terror materiel.”

Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for the agency, said Monday that it knew of the suit, but “has not been served with any legal process.” She added: “The United Nations, including UNRWA, enjoys immunity from legal process, as do United Nations officials, including those serving with UNRWA.”

A senior Hamas official didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hamas does not have access to the global banking architecture that allows easy transfer of money across borders. For many years, Israel has allowed outside funds, including money from UNRWA, to be sent to Gaza to pay for basic necessities. The Israeli government facilitated a yearslong effort by the Qataris to send cash for humanitarian operations. But there have been widespread questions as to whether the Qatari money has been diverted by Hamas to pay for military operations.

UNRWA was created in 1949 and is funded primarily through donations from U.N. member nations. The United States has long been the largest contributor, giving $371 million in 2023, nearly 30% of the agency’s contributions, according to a congressional report.

The defendants named in the suit are Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA; Pierre Krähenbühl, the agency’s former head, who is now at the International Red Cross; Leni Stenseth, Sandra Mitchell and Margot Ellis, who are former deputy commissioners-general; Greta Gunnarsdottir, director of the agency’s office in New York; and Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.