Updated: UN Agency Condemns Israel, Enables Terror

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is a constant source of criticism of Israeli policies, typically blaming Israel for the suffering in the Gaza Strip without acknowledging the role Palestinian leaders, Hamas especially, have played in causing suffering in the territory.

Instead of ameliorating the plight of the refugee population it is supposed to help, UNRWA has enacted policies that have actually increased the number of refugees it serves, while another agency, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has helped resettle millions of refugees over the past 60 years.

To make matters worse, UNWRA has served as a source of financial and logistical resources for groups like Hamas that vow Israel’s destruction, and its schools have been used as terrorist recruiting grounds. Hamas members have served on UNRWA’s staff and have held positions in the agency’s employee unions. For some reason, these ties did not come as a shock to UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen who, in 2004, told the Canadian Broadcasting Company “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime” and that “We do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”

As a result of these problems, legislators in the United States and Japan have sponsored legislation calling on their countries to restrict their financial support to the agency.

Christopher Gunness — UNWRA Spokesperson

During the recent fighting in the Gaza Strip, UNWRA’s criticism of Israel has been relentless while its commentary of Hamas’ misdeeds has been restrained and cautious. For example, UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness has appeared on numerous television shows condemning Israel’s attack on Hamas but reserves his criticism of Hamas – whose rocket fire precipitated the crisis – until after he has excoriated Israel. Gunness had this to say while appearing on a television broadcast in Australia on Jan. 7, 2009:

Surely any military planner would have known that planning a military offensive in an area so tiny, so densely populated as a matter of certainty that civilians are going to get killed. Look at the pictures coming out of Jabaliya for example. Look at the pictures coming out of the mortuaries in the Shifa hospital in Gaza. Innocent children, babies, women are being killed. This offensive has to stop. And by the way, there were quite a number of rockets out of northern Gaza yesterday, we condemn those and we say they have to stop too, because there is now a cycle of violence that can only shatter further the already very badly damaged peace process. And they are going on even from northern Gaza but the offensive which hasn’t stopped the rockets must also stop. Enough is enough. Enough civilians have been killed. (Emphasis added.)

Here, Gunness holds Israel responsible for the deaths of civilians in the Gaza Strip by asserting that “any military planner” would know that civilians would result from an attack on the territory. What Gunness fails to mention is that any responsible leader would also know that allowing the Gaza Strip to be used as a launching pad for thousands of rocket and mortar attacks for the past three years – as Hamas has done – would ultimately provoke a response from Israel.

Gunness does mention, as an afterthought, the rockets fired during the recent round of fighting (if only to allow him to assert that offensive “hasn’t stopped the rockets”). But what about the thousands of rocket attacks that preceded Israel’s attack on Hamas? Why are these attacks, which have been taking place since 2001 – not just since 2006 when asserted control of the Gaza Strip – omitted from his Gunness’ moral pronouncements about the conflict?

Does Gunness expect Israel, which has been attacked from virtually every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the 1990s to do nothing in the face of these rocket attacks, which have rendered much of its territory uninhabitable?

Gunness’ use of the phrase “by the way” coupled with his assertion that Hamas rockets have to stop “too” demonstrates his apparent lack of concern over rockets that terrorized Israel for the past six years. Apparently, Gunness is only worried about rockets going into Israel once the IDF fights back. Where was UNWRA’s outrage before Israel’s attack on Hamas? And by the way, is Gunness outraged by Hamas’ hijacking of trucks carrying Jordanian aid intended for UNRWA?

Gunness’s reluctance to hold Hamas accountable for its sins is evident in his comments on Hamas’ use of civilians as human shields.

On the Hamas side, if they are using human beings civilians as human shields then of course, that is wrong and we condemn that. I personally have no information about that. Let me tell you that in Gaza there is a state of complete confusion so for us to monitor individuals being used as human shields is very difficult. I’m not saying it’s not going on. If it is going on in the United Nations condemn that. It is quite clearly a violation of international humanitarian law. (Emphasis added.)

Why the uncertainty? Is information about this behavior really that hard for Gunness to obtain? Haaretz has reported that Israeli intelligence officials believe that Hamas leaders were hiding in the basement of Shifa hospital.

Can Gunness, who himself has commented about the status of health care in the Gaza Strip, provide any information about this? If he can be “99.9 percent certain” that no militants were in the UNWRA school that was struck by Israeli fire, and if he can obtain a “private” admission from Israeli officials that in fact, no militants were inside the compound – even if they were in the vicinity – then why can he not obtain similar information about Shifa hospital from Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip?

Even if Gunness dismisses the report of Hamas terrorists hiding in the basement of Shifa hospital as Israeli propaganda, what about Palestinian testimony about the organization using civilian areas to attack Israel? As previous CAMERA research has revealed:

Shireen Shihab … a Palestinian resident of Gaza City … told the New York Times that she saw Hamas fighters launching rockets from her neighborhood. Jabaliya resident Ibrahim Amen told reporters he saw a commander of the Hamas military wing near a UN school just before the school was damaged by Israeli mortar fire. More strikingly, the 16-year-old Amen said he was recruited to the area to build positions for Palestinian fighters. Two other Palestinians witnessed “a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school,” according to the AP. … Palestinian Hanan Abu Khajib saw the same thing. Talal Safadi relayed that “resistance fighters were firing from positions all around the [al Quds] hospital.” A Palestinian reporter in Gaza was caught on tape amused that Hamas had apparently just fired a Grad rocket from under the building from which she was broadcasting.
A Western reporter described a Qassam rocket being fired in the Nuseirat refugee camp from “smack in the middle of the four buildings, where every apartment was full, most of them with newly made refugees,” and a camouflaged tunnel of the type used by Hamas in a residential neighborhood in Jabaliya. (The tunnel was seen only a few yards away from a Palestinian woman who told the reporter that there were no such tunnels.) 

Given the mounting evidence of Hamas’ use of human shields, how can Gunness be so obtuse about the organization’s behavior in the Gaza Strip? Is Hamas truly that unknown to UNRWA officials? Numerous articles indicate otherwise; members of the organization have been on the agency’s payroll. If Gunness, himself a former journalist, cannot get information about terrorists hiding in the basement of Shifa Hospital from Hamas members themselves, what is stopping him from getting confirmation from the physicians who work at the hospital?

Gunness, who has been ferocious in his criticism of Israel, at one point, telling an Israeli diplomat, “Yigal, I’ve got to nail you on this,” has been cautious and circumspect in his criticism of Hamas. At what point will he “nail” Hamas officials? Would Gunness ever dare to speak to a Hamas official in such an adversarial tone and if so has it ever been caught on tape to be displayed before an audience?

The criticism Gunness has leveled at Hamas during the recent fighting was placed after an “if/then” statement, as if there is any doubt that Hamas is responsible for using civilians as human shields. Hamas itself has bragged about using shields, and still, Gunness hides behind a smokescreen of uncertainty when speaking about the organization’s behavior. Apparently, in Gunness’ worldview, the only threat to Palestinian well-being worth talking about is the threat posed by Israel’s attack on Hamas.

Who is more worthy of Gunness’s outrage – Israeli officials who withdrew more than 8,000 of its citizens from Gaza Strip in 2005 in an effort to promote peace – or Hamas which took advantage of Israel’s departure by using the territory as a staging ground for incessant rocket attacks, and put civilians at risk by putting its weapons in mosques and in densely populated areas and has apparently used a local television station to recruit children as human shields?

John Ging

John Ging, the director of UNRWA’s operations in the Gaza Strip has also exhibited a tendency to condemn Israel while remain silent about Hamas’ misdeeds. For example, Ging accused Israel of killing the Palestinian driver of an aid truck on Jan. 7, 2009, while Israeli officials – including the medic who brought the Palestinians to a hospital in Ashkelon – said the driver’s death the the consequence of Palestinian sniper fire. On Jan. 8, 2009, The Jerusalem Post reported:

UN officials in New York placed the blame squarely on Israel, not just for the Erez incident, but also for a separate episode in which a marked UN ambulance convoy sent to retrieve the body of an UNRWA worker killed by an air strike came under small arms fire near Beit Hanun on Thursday afternoon. No one was injured in that incident.
John Ging, the director of operations in Gaza for UNRWA, said via video link that “the verbal assurances have run out in terms of credibility.”
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“We cannot rely on firm commitments given from the Israeli side,” Ging told reporters. “To have Israeli forces on the ground firing at and now hitting convoys that have been specifically cleared – this is real-time clearance?”
Ging acknowledged, however, that he could not be absolutely certain that the attacks came from IDF forces, telling a reporter who asked whether other combatants may have been responsible, “There is a conflict going on.”

Here, Ging reveals a contradiction underlying much of UNRWA’s polemic about the fighting in the Gaza Strip. When challenged on his assertion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of UN personnel, Ging acknowledges that he isn’t completely sure, and explains his uncertainty with the phrase, “There’s a conflict going on.”

And that is exactly the problem. Ging invokes the fog of war to explain and justify his uncertainty over exactly who is responsible for the death of the UN driver – even as the UN emphatically asserts Israel is responsible and cannot be trusted.

The fog of war bedevils Israel with much greater consequence than it does Ging. As Colonel Richard Kemp recently stated on the BBC, soldiers make mistakes. It is a tragic aspect of modern warfare, but civilians are sometimes killed as a result of attacks on legitimate military targets. Kemp said it is not just that Hamas uses human shields, but the nature of war itself.

Any military commander will tell you this. War is full of mistakes. There’s friction all over the place and if you just take for example the way we operate, our British forces operate in Afghanistan and in Iraq, there have been numerous mistakes there, not just by the British, by the Americans, by all of the forces and these things do happen. It’s a real tragedy. It’s a very unfortunate, but it’s just what happens when you go to war.

At a certain point, one has to wonder when Ging and Gunness will acknowledge that the recent round of fighting, and all its attendant chaos, was precipitated by Hamas’ failure to stop rocket attacks into Israel.

Clearly Hamas’ rocket attacks, which are acts of wars (and war crimes) threaten the well-being of the population UNRWA serves. What explains UNRWA’s relative silence over these rocket attacks until after Israel fought back? Apparently, UNWRA is only willing to condemn Palestinian behavior when such criticism can be coupled with criticism of Israel. “By the way” and “if/then” criticism of Hamas does not constitute the moral leadership Gunness and Ging like to believe they are offering to the international community.

UNRWA’s Failure, Links to Terror

UNRWA’s tendency to demonize Israel and downplay Hamas’ misdeeds should not come as a surprise. The agency’s links to Palestinian terror groups – and its failure to improve the lives of the refugees it serves – have been well-documented in a number of articles. (CAMERA has posted a round-up of this material here.)

One of the most compelling articles about UNRWA’s connections to terror organizations is “The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem” by Arlene Kushner, which was published in the Autumn 2005 issue of Azure. In her article, Kushner documents compares UNRWA’s effectiveness with that of the another UN agency charged with helping refugees – the United Nations High Commission For Refugees (UNHCR). According to Kushner, the UNHCR has helped approximately 25 million displaced people find homes in the aftermath of war.

Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA have remained in refugee camps and have increased substantially in numbers because of the UN’s decision to allow children of Palestinian refugees to claim refugee status. Kushner also documents how members of Palestinian terror groups serve as UNRWA staffers and how the organization has blocked efforts to provide permanent housing for Palestinian refugees. She writes:

By operating outside the norms accepted by the international community, UNRWA has succeeded in perpetuating a growing refugee problem. By establishing its own definition of a “Palestinian refugee” and actively encouraging resettlement in Israel, UNRWA not only has failed to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue, but has also lost sight of its original humanitarian goals, subordinating them instead to the political aims of the Arab world. Moreover, by hiring from within its own client population, UNRWA has at best created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to terrorist activity in its midst, and at worst has become so enmeshed in the terrorist population as to be effectively held hostage by it. In the final analysis, UNRWA’s handling of the Palestinian refugee issue is both antagonistic to the achievement of peace in the Middle East and detrimental to the plight of the refugees themselves.

In October 2004, Kushner wrote a piece documenting UNRWA’s links to terrorism which was published by the Center for Near East Policy Research. In this piece, Kushner writes of Hamas members controlling the unions representing UNRWA employees, of an UNRWA ambulance being used to transport weapons and explosives and to terrorists and of an UNRWA driver taking “advantage of the freedom of movement he enjoyed to transmit messages among Hamas activists in various Palestinian towns.”

Kushner also details the actions of Nahd Rashi Ahmad Atallah, a senior UNRWA official who admitted that during the months of June and July 2002, “he had used his car, an UNRWA car, for the transportation of armed members of the ‘Popular Resistance Committees’ who were on their way to carry out sniper attacks against Israeli troops … and a missile attacks against Jewish settlements in the Northern part of the Gaza Strip.” Kushner continues:

In addition to these, Nahd had used an UNWRA car to transport a 12 kg explosive charge for his brother-in-law, a member of the “Popular Resistance Committees,” a militant faction of the Fatah movement.

Also, in May 2008, the Global Research in International Affairs Center published an article detailing how UNRWA schools have “become hotbeds of anti-W estern, anti-American, and anti-Semitic indoctrination, recruiting offices for terrorist groups.” Included in this piece is a description of how Awad Al-Qiq, a science teacher at an UNRWA school served as the leading bomb maker for Islamic Jihad. According to the reports authors “Islamic Jihad did not need to pay him a salary for his military and militant activities since the UN, and American taxpayers, were already doing so.”

For much of the recent fighting, Hamas leaders were in hiding – away from the media. Fortunately for them, they did not need to put themselves in front of cameras to denounce Israel. UNRWA officials did that for them.
Jan. 28 UPDATE
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has issued a report highly critical of UNRWA prepared by James G. Lindsay who served at the agency from 2000 to 2007. The report, titled “Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees,” is a detailed indictment of UNRWA’s operations in the Middle East. The documents executive summary offers the following recommendations:
The most important change, the one most required and least subject to rational disagreement, is the removal of citizens from recognized states—persons who have the oxymoronic status of “citizen refugees”—from UNRWA’s jurisdiction. This would apply to the vast majority of Palestinian “refugees” in Jordan, as well as to some in Lebanon and Syria. If a Palestinian state were created in Gaza and/or the West Bank, such a change would affect Palestinian refugees in those areas. Meanwhile, for those who are still defined as refugees, UNRWA’s move toward greater emphasis on need-based assistance, as opposed to status-as-refugee-based assistance, should be accelerated. No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services. In addition, UNRWA should make the following operational changes: halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues; take additional steps to ensure the agency is not employing or providing benefits to terrorists and criminals; and allow the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or some other neutral entity, to provide balanced and discrimination-free textbooks for UNRWA initiatives.
With the above changes, UNRWA would be better aligned with what should be its ultimate objectives. For the Palestinians it serves, this means ending their refugee status and returning, after nearly sixty years, to what most of them so desperately seek: normal lives.
Lindsay reports that UNRWA officials refused to “provide detailed feedback” on a draft of his paper.
The agency’s official readers were, inter alia, “struck by [the draft’s] inaccuracies, its selective use of source material, its failure to understand or even acknowledge many of our current activities, its flawed analysis of our mandate and its misunderstanding of UNRWA’s political and historical context.” Despite repeated requests from the author, the agency declined to identify the alleged weaknesses on the grounds that “our viewsand understanding of UNRWA’s role, the refugees and even U.S. policy are too far apart for us to take time (time we do not have) to enter into an exchange with little likelihood of influence a narrative which so substantially differs from our own.” Thus, the paper has not benefitted from any input by UNRWA, whether a discussion of policy or even correction of alleged errors.
The report details a number of troubling facts about the agency. For example, on page 21 Lindsay reports “that teachers in UNRWA schools were afraid to remove posters glorifying ‘martyrs’(including suicide bombers”) for fear of retribution from armed supporters of the ‘martyrs.’” Lindsay continues:
UNRWA’s support of Palestinian views was notable throughout the second intifada. Although it occasionally issued mild, pro forma criticisms of Palestinian attacks (most of which were clearly war crimes), the agency put more effort into criticizing Israeli counterterrorism efforts (which were condemned using language associated with war crimes, though any such crimes were far from proved. This trend has endured well beyond the intifada. In a typical example, Palestinians in Gaza launch a terrorist attack against Israelis—often a rocket strike on civilian targets, a war crime. This leads to and IDF attack on the terrorists, during which Palestinian civilians (among whom the terrorists place themselves) are killed or injured. UNRWA then lodges a protest condemning “Israel’s disproportionate, indiscriminate and excessive use of force, as well as the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel,” naming the aggressor only as an afterthought. If, however, there is no Israeli military response, the Palestinian terrorism normally passes without UNRWA comment.
It should be noted that Lindsay casts doubt on some of the accusations leveled at UNRWA by other commentators, asserting that the examples of “staff involvement in anti-Israeli violence that critics often cite are, for the most part, not clearly convincing.” Lindsay also reports, however, that “evidence of area staff members who have had ‘second jobs’ with Hamas or other terrorist groups does occasionaly come to light.”
This is not a document UNRWA officials can dismiss out of hand, for its author is intimately familiar with the agency’s inner workings. Lindsay took an early retirement from the U.S. Department of Justice to join UNRWA in Gaza in 2000 and worked as legal advisor for the agency from 2002 on, overseeing “all UNRWA legal activities, from aid contacts to relations with Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority.”

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