BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, NABLUS — ISRAELI undercover soldiers disguised themselves as United Nations officials during a search and arrest operation here March 23, according to several Palestinian refugees whose houses were raided in the sweep.
At least two members of a special plainclothes squad wore the orange vests customarily worn by Refugee Affairs Officers to identify them as officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), four eyewitnesses in two different houses said.
UNRWA spokesman Sandro Tucci said his agency had "obviously taken this matter very seriously because it implies a threat to the security of our personnel."
Israeli Army spokesman Moshe Fogel said he had no knowledge of the alleged incident, and refused to comment beyond saying that "the purpose [of the undercover military units] is not to dress up as any official."
Zakiya Aweiss, a resident of this crowded and shabby refugee camp outside the northern town of Nablus, said that as she was preparing food to break the Islamic fast of Ramadan just after sundown on March 23, "I heard hammering on the door of my uncle's house next door, and then at our door. I opened it, and two men in orange vests came in," followed by several others brandishing weapons.
"They rampaged through the house, took the food we were about to eat, and overturned everything," Ms. Aweiss said. "They were speaking in Hebrew all the time and even spoke to me in Hebrew, though I didn't understand them."
At the neighboring house, belonging to Zakiya's uncle, Mahmoud Aweiss, the group of soldiers who carried out the search included "one who was dressed as a soldier, while the rest were wearing blue jeans and normal clothes," according to Mr. Aweiss. "Three of them had orange vests with a badge on the front and something written on them. But I cannot read so I do not know what it was," he said.
His son Atta, who was arrested in the raid on the house, said that the orange vests worn by the undercover soldiers "looked like the UN ones," with a badge emblazoned on the left chest that he remembered as a Star of David surrounded by a wreath of leaves. The vest also carried Hebrew lettering that he could not read, he said.
UNRWA refugee officers wear fluorescent orange vests, such as those worn by roadworkers in Israel and available on the open market, on which the United Nations symbol of a globe surrounded by a wreath of leaves is printed. The genuine vests carry no other lettering.
UNRWA has received previous reports that Israeli Army undercover units have included UN jackets among their wardrobe of disguises, "but this is the first really convincing report we have heard," according to one UN official.
UNRWA is understood not to have filed an official complaint to the Israeli government about the incident, but the agency's commissioner general, Ilter Turkmen "has asked us to compile as many elements and details as possible" on Israeli undercover operations, according to Mr. Tucci.
The apparent use of the UN disguise has worried UNRWA refugee officers, who are often called to the scene of clashes between refugees and Army units, and whose ability to do their work depends on the trust they enjoy among the Palestinian refugee population.
Concern in the refugee camps where Palestinian activists are known to be armed is especially high.
"We are OK if [armed militants] know who we are because of our jackets," said one Refugee Affairs officer. "But if they don't...."