UNRWA staff stealing and selling humanitarian aid, Gazans report

GENEVA, 8 May 2024 — UNRWA staff are stealing aid and selling it for profit, while those who report it face reprisals, according to numerous reports published by Palestinians in an UNRWA-related chatroom.

The posts expose a deep frustration by employees that senior UNRWA employees are engaged in the abuses, and that the agency is doing nothing about it. This comes amid a recent call by UNRWA Commissioner-General Phillipe Lazzarini for countries to increase direct cash assistance to Gazans because, although “there is more food available… it still does not mean that the food is accessible.”

The chatroom is run by a former UNRWA employee, Haitham al-Sayyed, who was removed from UNRWA in 2016 after he publicly called out the agency for hiding an UNRWA school map that denied the existence of Israel, covered up with a white cloth to hide it from the cameras while UN chief Ban Ki-moon was holding a press conference in June 2016.

In the 17 years he worked for UNRWA, al-Sayyed created several chat rooms for staff and educators to share posts, many of which feature antisemitism, incitement to hatred and Jihadi terrorism.

Today, al-Sayyed continues to operate these chat rooms where he disseminates information about UNRWA salaries and other agency news relevant to employees. Despite recent scrutiny of UNRWA promotion of terorism, and promises of reform, the chat rooms continue to thrive with posts from thousands of employees who were recently celebrating Iran’s attack on Israel.


UNRWA Staff Stealing Aid

A key recent topic is the stealing and reselling of free humanitarian aid by UNRWA employees.

While Haitham al-Sayyed was supposedly fired from UNRWA, he is still considered by many in the chat rooms as an important figure in the organization who holds sway with the senior administration. UNRWA staff, frustrated by inaction and even complicity of senior staff in these thefts, have thus resorted to sharing heir grievances to Haitham in the hope that he can get UNRWA’s top officials to listen.

On January 6th, Haitham posted the following message, as sent to him by an UNRWA employee which outlines these allegations in detail (names have been redacted by Haitham):

“I am an agency employee working in the emergency at a shelter school…  In fact, out of honesty and speaking the word of truth, I agreed with my colleagues to tell the truth, I am completely dissatisfied with the school administration and its honesty in distributing aid due to the thefts, perhaps this was the fault of the official who had the responsibility of choosing a good man to manage the center, unfortunately, the center is managed by a teacher… the displaced people in the external shelter do not get their right to food and non-food aid, but rather it is distributed at night and sold in front of our eyes, for example with baby pampers, which we were surprised the next day that 150 bags were distributed at night and some of the displaced people did not get their right to it, and everyone who speaks is transferred, including Mr. A. Raed Al … And A. Awad…  

They did not tolerate what happened in the school, especially the theft of diesel, as our school remained for more than a month without electricity or it came for a few minutes under the pretext that the motor was in another school, and the thief was exposed and the principal was informed, but to this day he is still working with us so that I feel like vomiting when I see him.

The biggest motivation to publish this letter is because of a young engineer with great morals who was in charge of the school. He was in charge of the store, and because he prevented the attempted theft in the store by the night administration, but then he was arbitrarily transferred on charges of embezzlement, this burned our hearts for him because he is the only trustee in the school. I add another piece of information for you the evening manager was at Khawla School, but its morning manager transferred him, and unfortunately, the morning administration is handled by a female teacher…  Unfortunately, she did not take any steps to stop these crimes until we became suspicious that she is complicit with them, and unfortunately, this evening manager had a hand and support in the operations, so it was very easy for him to transfer whoever he wants on charges of embezzlement.

I tell you of another example that happened before my eyes on the day of the distribution of rice meals, where two bags of rice rolls were hidden in the administration cabinets and the displaced people were deprived of it, I did not find anyone to whom I could disclose this secret, so I really ask you to send our complaint with names to whoever can take over the investigation inside this shelter, especially in the non-food aid department.

Yesterday, we visited the monitoring department and there was an imbalance in the number of tarpaulins, where the director gave a number other than the number provided by the person who keeps the tarpaulins in his private room, to our surprise there were 16 undistributed tarpaulins and this is what disturbed us, why were they kept? Is it for sale? Note that in front of my eyes, more than one person came to ask for a tarp, so I ask you to communicate this speech to those in charge to open an investigation to reach all IDPs, whether inside or outside the shelter.” (message screenshot)

In the same conversation, another group member named Dr. Izzat Shatat wrote:

“Open thefts from shelter workers… Rami Alat… The director of a school warehouse came now with 50 cartons of food that were distributed in UNRWA schools and sold them to a merchant for 350 shekels per carton, equivalent to $100… How did he take out this amount of cartons? Where is the administration about this?” (message screenshot)

Another UNRWA employee who goes by ‘A. Islam’ on telegram added that at his school the same thing was happening:

“The school where I was displaced is the same. Although I am a tenured teacher, I went to the administration to volunteer with them, the director told me that he had enough volunteers and the volunteers were not tenured. What I saw with my own eyes after the distribution of pampers, where 5 pampers were distributed per child, was that one of the volunteers was returning to her home carrying a full packet of pampers. A truck came to the school carrying canned sweets and tissues that were stolen and sold at the school’s door. Some displaced people saw some workers stealing potatoes at night.” (message screenshot)


More Eyewitnesses Speak Up

UNRWA employee, Mohammed Musa al-Sawalhi (ID#10221667), recounts abuse by some UNRWA employees with a message shared on February 20th that proclaims he saw with his own eyes some employees stealing aid and heard that others were hoarding aid in their houses. He claims “80% of employees in the shelters have no morals or dignity” and that even family members of one director were caught stealing aid on video:

“What we saw in the Abu Hilal center was a large number of bags prepared as a food basket with kitchen utensils … I thought it was for employees, but unfortunately, we were informed that it was only for workers in the shelter centers …

What we witnessed with our own eyes in the shelters that we passed through and what we heard from reliable friendly sources is that the workers in the shelters have their homes full of aid and not only them, but their loved ones with them…

Eighty percent of the employees in the shelters that I passed by have no morals or dignity, and they are only concerned with themselves and their loved ones.

In one of the meetings in one of the centers, favoritism is discussed, and the director of the center exploits the workers while asking them to be just in the distribution … One of the workers responds to him by filming a video of the director’s son moving closed cartons of aid to his home …” (message screenshot)

In another instance on March 1st, a group member who goes by “Deema Deema” on telegram asked:

“When will the directors of UNRWA centers in schools, especially Rafah Preparatory Girls School B, stop stealing the food and needs of the displaced?” (message screenshot)

These are only a few of countless messages accusing staff, including directors, of stealing aid at the expense of those in need. Yet for the past months, these calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears as the members indicate nothing has been done to resolve the issue.


Employees are Fed Up with their Colleagues

On March 22nd, a heated debate erupted in the chat room where some UNRWA employees accused other employees of not giving them access to a medicine cabinet. This cabinet is itself already questionably reserved just for UNRWA staff, but some staff claim those working in the shelter hoard it all for themselves. In the midst of this infighting, one member called ‘Ahmed Hassan’ commented:

“From the past wars, I knew some employees personally, and I trusted them to be good people, but the soul is evil. Some of them were stealing on a daily basis as if it were a prize. This war revealed a lot and some of it was documented with photos, videos, and audio.” (message screenshot)

On March 8th, in another discussion about rampant theft one group member named ‘Mohammed al-Azeeb’ claimed:

“Employees of the shelters stole and sold from underneath the shelters, and district officials rummaged through the aid cartons and stole the items, and their brothers sold them to the poor… Corruption is widespread…” (message screenshot)

Since the start of the war, many in the chat rooms have denounced the profiteering that some merchants were engaging in at the expense of a desperate population. Shockingly it seems many have witnessed UNRWA staff engaging in the same despicable behavior, except worsened by the fact that the aid was given to them for free. Furthermore, they all attest that this is a widespread problem in the agency.


Thieves Compared to Jews 

Antisemitism is also prominently featured in their discussions about stealing aid. In this message from April 23rd, group member ‘nougat’ says:

“Whoever steals from the children of his people is no different from a Jew.” (message screenshot)

Another member, who goes by Moon Lite, on April 9th said:

“…stealing and looting have become a culture for most people and because of this we will never see conquest or victory.
I ask God to enable the worship of the Mujahideen in Gaza against the thieves and the Jews.” (message screenshot)


UNRWA Chief Lazzarini Turns Blind Eye

These chats allude not just to serious problems within the management of aid distribution by UNRWA but also to a deep frustration by the staff to the lack of accountability and the inaction of UNRWA’s top officials to respond to these crimes. Lazzarini’s band-aid solution seems to be to give Palestinians “more cash liquidity.” But this would only serve to reward the corrupt and further entrench the profiteering system. Other UN agencies with higher proportions of international supervisors on the ground such as WFP, UNICEF, and WHO are better equipped to mitigate these problems but many keep insisting that only UNRWA can do this work. In light of these and many other well-documented problems within UNRWA, donor states should consider their funding priorities carefully.

UN Watch