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Israel Accuses U.N. Worker of Aiding Hamas in Gaza

JERUSALEM — Israeli prosecutors on Tuesday charged a Palestinian employee of the United Nations in the Gaza Strip with providing material assistance to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the territory, including helping to build a jetty for its military wing.

The accusations against the employee, Waheed Al Bursh, came after Israel leveled charges Thursday against a Palestinian employee of World Vision in Gaza, saying he had funneled millions of dollars to Hamas.

Mr. Bursh, an engineer with the United Nations Development Program since 2003, was detained on July 3 by Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet. Israeli news organizations reported that he had confessed to being instructed by Hamas officials to use his position to benefit the group. But Mr. Bursh’s relatives in Gaza insisted he was not involved with Hamas.

The United Nations agency, which is helping rebuild thousands of homes and other buildings destroyed by airstrikes in Israel’s 2014 summer-long conflict with Gaza’s militant groups, said in a statement that it was “greatly concerned” about the allegations, had “zero tolerance for wrongdoing” and would cooperate fully with the Israeli authorities.

The statement said the agency was reviewing “the processes and circumstances surrounding the allegations,” and noted that they appeared to involve only “seven truckloads out of a total of nearly 26,000” bringing building materials into Gaza.

But the indictment against Mr. Bursh — on the heels of the World Vision case and the revelation on Monday that the aid group Save the Children was investigating whether one of its Palestinian workers had been recruited by Hamas — raised broad questions about the vast network of humanitarian groups operating in Gaza.

Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the government was “asking for more vigilance” from groups working in Gaza, where most of the population of 1.8 million Palestinians relies on international organizations for food and other assistance.

Already, World Vision has frozen its Gaza operations while investigations continue, and Germany and Australia have suspended their donations to the World Vision projects in the Palestinian territories.

“Working in the Palestinian territories was hard before, and I can’t imagine what it is going to be like now,” said Ashley Jackson, a research associate with the Overseas Development Institute in London.

Robert Piper, the United Nations’ coordinator for humanitarian and development activities, issued a statement on Monday — before the allegations against the agency engineer were made public — calling any misuse of aid “a profound betrayal.”

“Everyone would pay a high price for such acts,” Mr. Piper said. “If proven by a due legal process, these actions deserve unreserved condemnation; Gaza’s demoralized and vulnerable citizens deserve so much better.”

The indictment contends that Mr. Bursh transferred 300 tons of construction rubble to a port that he knew would be used at some point by the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.

It says that he was contacted in April or May 2015 by Hosni Suleiman, an activist in the Qassam Brigades who was acting on behalf of a high-ranking Qassam member, Abu Anas al-Andour. It also accuses him of being in contact with two men referred to only by their last names, Rantissi and Radwan, two prominent Hamas-loyal families in Gaza.

The Shin Bet said in a statement that Mr. Bursh had also persuaded his managers to prioritize the rebuilding of homes in an area “populated by Hamas members,” and had notified Hamas activists when United Nations workers removing rubble uncovered openings of attack tunnels or entrances to weapon-storage rooms so they could take control of the sites.

An uncle of Mr. Bursh’s denied the charges. He said the engineer, who is from Jabaliya, a crowded neighborhood north of Gaza City, was a quiet family man whose wife had given birth to their seventh child while he was in detention. “If Waheed came to me and said, ‘I belong to a militant group,’ I would respond to him and say, ‘You are liar,’ ” said the uncle, who would give only his nickname, Abu Abed.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said the group did “not rely on employees of international aid organizations for any needs of the resistance.” He added that if the allegations are true, “then it is an individual act — we are not responsible.”

But Naji Sharrab, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza, said the idea of Hamas’s pressuring aid workers was not surprising because of its near-monopoly on power in the territory. Hamas security forces can search or shut down offices, he noted, and can prevent people from entering or leaving Gaza.

“Hamas has complete authority to interfere and control all the organizations working in Gaza,” he said.

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(via NY Times)