UNRWA: Protesting Too Much

What do you do when your license to continue operating as a human service provider is about to come under review?

If you are smart, you devise a two-pronged plan: provide evidence of the continuing need for your services, and attack those who criticize or question your operation.

This is precisely what UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) -- a PR-savvy agency if ever there was one -- is doing in the run-up to the U.N. General Assembly vote on the renewal of UNRWA's mandate at the end of this month.

Unfortunately for UNRWA, this time, it is seriously overplaying its hand.  It has been fairly successful until now with regard to convincing the world that Israel is responsible for the Palestinian Arab "refugees" remaining in limbo.  And UNRWA has as effectively provided a picture of overwhelming human hardship in Gaza.

However, UNRWA has just issued a report that can be readily refuted.  In addition, official spokesperson Chris Gunness has put out statements in the media that only someone recently arrived from outer space would be likely to swallow uncritically.

Let's look at the official report first.  This is an annual report, put out each year to mark Israel's blockade of Gaza -- instituted in June 2007, after Hamas took Gaza in a coup. 

This Israeli maritime blockade is sanctioned by international law: Israel is at war with Hamas and has the right to prevent arms and rockets, which would be used to attack Israeli civilians, from entering Gaza via the Mediterranean.  One need only consider the history of ships that Israel has intercepted that were carrying arms meant for Gaza -- most recently on March 15 of  this year -- to understand Israel's concern.

Furthermore, Israel has set up no barriers against humanitarian aid on land.  Goods are permitted through crossings between Israel and Gaza on a daily basis.  In the past year, restrictions on what would be permitted through have been loosened, with only those materials that serve a dual purpose and might be employed by Hamas for weaponry being denied entry.  The permitted goods are both humanitarian -- for use by UNRWA and other human service NGOs operating in Gaza -- and commercial.

UNRWA's report this year documents what it claims is a deteriorating situation in Gaza.  Says Gunness, who is cited in this report:

[T]he number of people coming to us, the abject poor living on just over 1 dollar a day, has tripled to 300,000 since the blockade was imposed and with many reconstruction projects still awaiting approval, the future looks bleak.

Of course, he explains:

Amid this economic gloom, UNRWA will continue with its human development work in health and education, running schools for some 213,000 children in Gaza, helping them towards a belief in an educated, dignified and peaceful future.

Gunness makes the claim that growth took place in the public sector -- that is, within the government run by Hamas -- and not at all in a declining private sector.

But let's take a look at a few salient facts that address the situation in Gaza.

According to a report issued last month by the International Monetary Fund, the gross domestic product in Gaza increased by 15% in the last year. 

A June 13 article by Media Line states that "Gazans say that goods smuggled in from Egypt [via the tunnels] are now an option rather than a necessity ... Gazans say they turn to Israeli goods because there is a wider variety and better quality."

On occasion, UNRWA has made the argument that consumer goods may be available, but people cannot afford to buy them.  This ultimately defies logic, because mer­chants would not continue to bring in consumer goods via the crossings from Israel if said merchants were not selling said goods.  According to an IDF release, in the past two days alone, 491 truckloads of goods and fuel (totaling more than 13,000 tons) passed into Gaza.  Some of those goods were commercial.

But for confirmation of the fact that conditions are better in Gaza, we don't need to go further than a statement by John Ging, made in December, shortly before he left his position as coordinator of UNRWA operations in Gaza.

[W]e've now turned the corner[.] ... [S]ince the new Israeli government decision on adjusting the blockade [that is, allowing more goods in via the land crossings], every day is better than yesterday.

This is not the picture Gunness has painted, and it's not his only misrepresentation. 

In an attempt to refute charges made concerning UNRWA, Gunness wrote an op-ed this week, in which he claimed the following:

Any suggestion that UNRWA is complicit in promoting anti-Semitism or terrorism lazily pedals old myths and fails to take account of the invaluable "neutrality" work that we carry out in our installations, whereby international UN staff work tirelessly, regularly inspecting our facilities, immediately rectifying any issues that come to light.

Our strenuous efforts to assure the neutrality not just of our facilities, but also of our staff, are regularly reported to our major donors, included the United States, to their satisfaction. In addition, we teach human rights and peaceful conflict resolution every day to some 500,000 children in the Arab states and territories around Israel, encouraging in the next generation the belief in a peaceful and stable future. Here our contribution IS unique.

As someone who has documented statements by UNRWA personnel for years, I rather thought that Chris Gunness outdid himself here.

It is a matter of public information that Hamas (via its affiliate Islamic Bloc) has long dominated the UNRWA's teachers' union in the Gaza Strip.  In 2006, for the first time, Hamas's candidates won all eleven seats, meaning that Hamas representatives now controlled the executive council of this union sector.  That pattern persisted in the 2009 elections, and Hamas-affiliated people are now effectively in charge in the schools.

That Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc (known in Arabic as Al-Kutla Al-Islamiah) also maintains broad programs in UNRWA schools in Gaza.  Beginning as early as junior high school, the Islamic Bloc promotes incitement to jihad and opposition to Israel.  The goal is to win the hearts and minds of students so they can be recruited into the Hamas military wing during high school or after graduation.

What is more, the textbooks used in UNRWA schools in Gaza and Judea and Samaria are produced by the Palestinian Authority.  These textbooks teach that all the land between the river and the sea belongs to the Arabs and that "martyrs" should be praised.  Academic researcher Arnon Groiss calls these volumes "texts of war."

So much for teaching human rights and belief in a peaceful future in UNRWA schools.

Could it be that UNRWA is running scared?

Hopefully Western nations, which provide the bulk of the financial support for UNRWA, are beginning to look at the organization's operations with a jaundiced eye.  It's time to adjust that UNRWA mandate.

Jerusalem journalist and author Arlene Kushner has been writing major reports on UNRWA for the Center for Near East Policy Research since 2003.

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