The United Nations has been quick to launch a special inquiry into Israel for defending itself this summer against Hamas terrorist attacks out of Gaza. But will anyone be investigating the role in this conflict of the U.N. itself?
This latest bout of war has underscored alarming questions about the U.N.’s chief agency in Gaza, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, better known as UNRWA.
Officially, UNRWA advertises itself as a strictly neutral party providing humanitarian and relief services — including schooling, health care, construction, loans, and emergency response — to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, including some 1.2 million beneficiaries in Gaza. In practice, UNRWA has become so enmeshed in the workings of Gaza that it effectively functions as a support service for the interests of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that rules the territory.
Hamas is dedicated in its charter and its public statements to eradicating Israel, and has used Gaza for years as a launching pad for bombarding Israel with rockets and mortars. Lacking the ability to obliterate Israel in one fell swoop, Hamas’s strategy has been to terrorize and try to delegitimize Israel, firing weapons from behind or near human shields, including UNRWA facilities, until the Israelis strike back in self-defense. Hamas then parades the resulting destruction before the world, blaming Israel for the conflict and punishing anyone in Gaza who might dissent. UNRWA plays along, condemning Israel in graphic terms while making scarce mention or none of Hamas.
Here’s a typical locution, plucked from an August 1 UNRWA daily Situation Report on Gaza: “Reportedly there were 100 rockets and 88 mortar shells fired toward Israel.” In UNRWA reports, it’s as if the rockets and mortars targeting Israel simply assemble and launch themselves.
During the thick of the fighting, in July, UNRWA reported discovering caches of rockets stored in three of its schools in Gaza. But not one of the related UNRWA press releases laid any blame on Hamas. UNRWA officials contented themselves with strongly condemning the unnamed “group or groups” who were using its schools as arsenals.
Surely UNRWA is aware that Hamas rules Gaza, and is the de facto authority responsible for policing both schools and munitions. That is spelled out in the U.N.’s previous, 2009 special inquiry into Gaza, better known as the Goldstone Report, which stated: “Since Hamas seized control in June 2007, law and order and other security functions have been performed by Hamas security organizations.” Does UNRWA’s preference for ignoring this fact when it discovers munitions in Gaza constitute “neutrality”?
Further questions abound. Here are a few:
Prior to this summer’s conflict, did UNRWA officials know anything about the vast labyrinth of attack tunnels, requiring thousands of tons of cement, that Hamas had dug into Israel? According to the Israeli military, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, there were more than 30 of these terrorist tunnels, built at an estimated cost of some $90 million — with the average tunnel requiring 350 truckloads of construction supplies.
That’s a lot of material to import into and ferry around the famously small enclave of Gaza, under the nose of UNRWA, which by its own account has a pervasive presence there. UNRWA employs more than 12,000 local Palestinians in Gaza, and agency facilities in the territory include 245 schools with more then 230,000 pupils; 22 primary-care health centers; and multiple centers for women, community rehabilitation, and vocational training.
Not all that long before this latest conflict erupted, UNRWA officials had been lamenting a dearth of construction materials in Gaza, demanding more, and blaming Israel for the shortages. Take, for example, a statement made last December by UNRWA’s deputy commissioner general, Margot Ellis, an American citizen and career aid expert, who has served since 2010 as UNRWA’s No. 2 official. Speaking at a U.N. donor conference to gather pledges for UNRWA, Ellis said that, since “the closure of the smuggling-tunnel trade with Egypt,” the lack of construction materials coming into Gaza had led to “severe setbacks for the economy,” and more materials were “desperately and urgently needed.” She blamed Israel for not allowing free access, saying: “Gaza remains suffocated by the illegal blockade imposed by the Government of Israel, which has now intensified with the non-admittance of building supplies urgently needed for UNRWA construction projects — to build schools and rehabilitate shelters.”
Was Ellis utterly ignorant of what was happening on the ground in Gaza, or under it? Were she and her UNRWA colleagues clueless that Hamas was pouring tons of building supplies into tunnels meant to attack Israel? Or did UNWRA officials know, or at least suspect, but say nothing?
Either way, the answer would be damning: If UNRWA, for all its networks and facilities in Gaza, knew nothing about the Hamas tunnels, that would suggest UNRWA officials have no business claiming expertise on the “needs” and “situation” in Gaza.
If UNRWA officials did know that Hamas was building terror tunnels, but raised no public alarm — which they certainly did not — then that should be grounds for a major inquiry into UNRWA complicity with terrorists.
There’s also the question of whether UNRWA employs or directly supports members of Hamas. If so, that should block the agency from receiving money from the U.S., which is its longtime top donor — contributing $294 million in 2013. Officially, these days, UNRWA eschews hiring members of Hamas. But there may be some precious distinctions at work here.
Since 2005, UNRWA and the U.S. have had a formal partnership, via a “Framework for Cooperation,” in which UNRWA promises to comply with various requirements of “neutrality.” The aim is to avoid triggering a provision of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which forbids funding to UNRWA unless UNRWA takes “all possible measures” to ensure that no U.S. assistance goes to any refugee who has received “military training” as a member of the Palestine Liberation Army, or any other “guerrilla-type organization,” or who has “engaged in any act of terrorism.”
There are enough loopholes here to drive a Hamas cement truck through. In the most recent version of the U.S.-UNRWA partnership, signed last November, UNRWA promised to ensure “neutrality” of its facilities and staff, by conducting regular inspections and checking its staff against specific U.N. sanctions lists. But those U.N. sanctions lists are not that relevant to Gaza: They cover al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not Hamas (there is no U.N. sanctions list for Hamas).
UNRWA also promises to provide lists of its staff members, upon request, to U.N. member states and the Palestinian Authority. In other words, this means it is up to the U.S. government to confirm that there are no Hamas cooperators among UNRWA’s 12,000 employees. (In UNRWA-staff-union elections in Gaza in 2012, a Hamas-affiliated slate won 25 of 27 seats.)
On its website, UNRWA advertises “neutrality” as “a core obligation and value of UN staff.” What does that mean to UNRWA’s Swiss commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl? In a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on July 31 — just after UNRWA had discovered a third cache of rockets in one of its “vacant” Gaza schools — Krahenbuhl took it upon himself to accuse Israel of war crimes for a strike on an UNRWA school, in which people died. But when Hamas summarily executed at least 18 Palestinians in Gaza last month, accusing them of collaborating with Israel, when Hamas gunmen paraded at least half a dozen of these suspects, hooded and handcuffed, then shot them to death before a cheering crowd in a Gaza public square, Krahenbuhl raised no public protest. Should the U.S. accept such skewed standards as “neutrality”?
These are just a sampling of the questions surrounding UNRWA’s role in the Israel–Gaza conflict.
UNRWA is now seeking $295.4 million in immediate emergency funding for its work in the Gaza Strip, with more fundraising to follow. Before the U.S. contributes anything more to this scene, how about some answers to what’s really going on with this welfare-for-terrorism agency?
— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.