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UNRWA At War: Reactions To The Gaza Operation By David Bedein

September 13, 2014

UNRWA at War: Reactions to the Gaza Operation
A must-read examination of UNRWA statements and actions during the Israeli-Hamas conflict of 2014. From David Bedein

As UNRWA statements and actions are reviewed, certain factors become readily evident:

UNRWA's relationship to Hamas is at the core of this review.

An examination of UNRWA press releases and public statements by UNRWA representatives for the time period of this report reveals that Hamas is almost never mentioned by name.

On July 11, for example, Robert Turner, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, exhibiting a rare attempt to be (to seem) even-handed, said:

"The United Nations has condemned indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza on civilian areas in Israel and I do so again now."

"Rocket fire from Gaza…" Perhaps the rockets fire themselves. There is no mention that Hamas is doing the bulk of the launching. And as to the fire being "indiscriminate… Does he suggest that there is a discriminating way to fire rockets at civilians?

►Not once during this time period was there a complaint or accusation voiced publicly by an UNRWA representative with regard to the Hamas practice of launching rockets and firing mortars from or near civilian sites — most particularly in this context, UNRWA installations.

Were one to form an impression of the war based solely on statements emanating from UNRWA, one would not know that such a practice – involving extensive utilization of civilians as human shields, which is blatantly in defiance of international law – had been taking place.

The failure of UNRWA personnel to refer to Hamas's use of human shields is particularly disturbing because UNRWA's mandate is humanitarian: the agency's first obligation is to the wellbeing of the Palestinian Arabs, referred to as refugees, for whom it maintains responsibility.

An UNRWA document declares explicitly that:

"UNRWA has a very clear mandate for protection…[which includes] obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of the relevant bodies of law (that is, human rights law, international humanitarian law…)"

At the very same time, article 28 of the Forth Geneva Convention states that:

"The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations."

Similarly the 1998 ICC Statute declares that:

"Utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations" constitutes a war crime.

It is not remotely within the realm of the possible that UNRWA, an international humanitarian agency, is unaware of these legal prohibitions.

Nor does it withstand the test of credibility that UNRWA staff might have been unaware of Hamas's practice in this regard. Hamas even put out a video encouraging it:

What we are seeing is a willful readiness to ignore these Hamas practices – in spite of the obligation of UNRWA to respond to them. In this sense, UNRWA has most grievously failed those individuals for whom it has responsibility.

That UNRWA is prepared to do this is most telling. It strongly suggests that UNRWA does not function as an autonomous humanitarian organization, but rather at the behest of Hamas.

In the handful of times that Hamas was mentioned by UNRWA representatives, it was almost always to indicate that Hamas was not involved in one matter or another.

Not once, but three times in the course of days, rockets were discovered hidden in UNRWA schools. The first time was on July 16, when UNRWA announced that 20 rockets had been found.

The placement of rockets in the school was soundly "condemned" as "a flagrant violation of …international law." But once again, no group was identified as responsible.

UNRWA itself was then roundly criticized by international commentators for saying it had "informed the relevant authorities" in order to have the rockets taken away. This meant handing the rockets back to Hamas instead of having them dismantled.

Not so, UNRWA replied:

"…those authorities we contacted are under the authority of the national unity government in Ramallah now that Hamas has effectively left the government."

This rationale was not well accepted, as in point of fact there is no authority in Gaza except Hamas.

But perhaps the single most disingenuous statement in the press release cited above is this:

"This incident [i.e., rockets placed in an UNRWA school], which is the first of its kind in Gaza, endangered civilians."

One blogger commented, tongue-in-cheek, that yes, this is the first time this number of rockets was found in this particular UNRWA school.

He was not far from the truth: Only in the very narrowest sense would this be the "first time," as a link between UNRWA schools and Hamas has been well documented for many years.

A special report from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, released in December 2002, indicated that a number of wanted terrorists were found hiding inside schools run by UNRWA.

A Shin Bet (Israeli secret service) report drawn up after Operation Defensive Shield identified the UNRWA schools that had been used for storing ammunition.

In the 2003 elections for representatives of the UNRWA union in the Gaza strip, Hamas-affiliated candidates — formally identified with the Islamic Bloc — gained 11 out of 11 seats in the teachers' sector. The Islamic Bloc has been charged by Hamas with furthering the goal of Hamas within the schools.

With regard to the first cache of rockets found in July, UNRWA refused Israel's request for pictures of those weapons, arguing that "any photographic material" is evidence needed for its investigation of the matter. The fact of such an investigation by UNRWA – which is not likely to result in an announcement of "findings," in any event – would in no way have precluded sharing of photos. However, such pictures might possibly have allowed identifica­tion of the rockets as the type utilized by Hamas.

When the second cache of rockets was found, UNRWA announced that staff had been withdrawn from the premises, "and so we are unable to confirm the precise number of rockets."

There was no explanation as to how it had been possible to confirm the 20 rockets in the first instance.

By July 29, a third cache of rockets had been found in an UNRWA school; there was very little press about this. One blogger cited information he had acquired that the rockets were discovered when the IDF learned of them from a member of Hamas they had captured.

But storage of rockets in an UNRWA facility was hardly the worst of what was encountered in the course of the war:

On July 30, three IDF soldiers were killed by a booby-trapped UNRWA clinic that housed the opening of a tunnel.

Over 80 kilograms of explosives were built into the clinic walls.

There was no comment from UNRWA on this, but serious questions have been raised regarding precisely how much can go on without UNRWA staff being aware of what is taking place.

On July 26, IDF troops discovered a massive terror tunnel underneath Gaza that was dug 25 meters deep and had entire underground rooms built to withstand airstrikes.

In these bunkers they reportedly found large bags of UNRWA aid – sacks of rice and even building material.

There has been no comment from UNRWA on this, either. But here it appears we see evidence of the linkage between UNRWA relief personnel and the Hamas personnel who work the tunnels.

UNRWA's relationship with Israel

While UNRWA personnel decline to accuse Hamas of endangering civilians or acting in defiance of international humanitarian law, precisely the reverse situation prevails where Israel is concerned. UNRWA spokespersons and various senior members of the administrative staff have few inhibitions when it comes to making these charges.

A few examples:

"We condemn this callous [hard-hearted, unfeeling] shelling and the extensive loss of life in the strongest possible terms" — UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl

"I also condemn use of force by Israeli security forces on Gaza that cause civilian casualties in violation of international humanitarian law" — Robert Turner, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza

"Last night, children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN designated shelter in Gaza. Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.

"…Our initial assessment is that it was Israeli artillery that hit our school…

"I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces." — UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl

[An alleged attack was] "tragic and appalling" — Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesman

"We call on Israeli security forces to end attacks against civilians & civilian infrastructure which are contrary to international law" — UNRWA tweet

"We are very disturbed that people with disabilities are among victims of Israeli strikes on #Gaza"

The charges leveled at the IDF by UNRWA are precipitous: there is a rush to judgment before sufficient investigation of the circumstances has been done. One can see this in the statement above by Robert Turner. He segues immediately from "our initial assessment" to "this serious violation of international law."

UNRWA does not acknowledge that Hamas has bases of operation near its facilities and shoots from them at the IDF.

Thus, when there is shooting in the general area of an UNRWA installation, a charge is immediately leveled that carries with it the implication that the IDF is willfully shooting directly at the installation. There is no readiness to concede that either the IDF was shooting at a nearby Hamas base, or that it was actually a stray Hamas mortar or rocket that hit the installation.

Interestingly, it is John Ging, the former director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, and now the director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations, who is prepared to be truthful about the circumstances. He told Radio Canada that, yes, Hamas shoots rockets into Israel from residential areas and from near UNRWA facilities.

Among the numerous incidents in which unreasonable charges were leveled at the IDF by UNRWA, this one stands out as notable:

UNRWA charged that Israel had shelled a school in Beit Hanoun in the north of Gaza, where people had taken shelter. The claim was that 15 people had been killed and over 100 injured. And what took place was labeled a "war crime."

Robert Turner, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, said that there was no information that there was military activity around the school.

"This was an installation we were managing, that we monitored [to ensure] that our neutrality was maintained."

Hamas? According to Turner, UNRWA had no information of Hamas activity around the school.

A statement by the UNRWA Commissioner-General read:

"The security situation in the Beit Hanoun area was deteriorating rapidly and over the course of the day UNRWA had been attempting to negotiate with the Israeli Defense Forces a pause in the fighting during which they would guarantee a safe corridor to relocate staff and any displaced persons who chose to evacuate to a more secure location. Approval for that never came to UNRWA. In addition, the school's coordinates had been formally conveyed to the Israeli authorities on 12 occasions, most recently at 10:56 this morning."

At one point Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson, tweeted that:

"Over the course of the day UNRWA tried 2 coordinate with the Israeli Army a window for civilians 2 leave & it was never granted."

The direct implication is that people who were sheltered in the school might have gotten out except for Israel's failure to allow this to happen.

Israel's response to this:

"the Israel Defense Forces told the Red Cross to evacuate civilians from UNRWA's shelter in Beit Hanoun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today. UNRWA and the Red Cross received the message.

"Hamas prevented civilians from evacuating the area during the window that the IDF gave them."

"In recent days, Hamas has fired rockets from an area of Beit Hanoun where an UNRWA shelter is located.

"Today, July 24, Hamas continued firing from Beit Hanoun. The IDF responded by targeting the source of the fire. Also today, several rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel fell short and hit Beit Hanoun."

According to the final IDF investigation:

"…one of the mortars fell in the school's courtyard while it was empty of people."

"In light of the investigation's findings, we have rejected claims of casualties in the school grounds as they were presented by various elements immediately after the incident took place,"

Were people killed at the Beit Hanoun school at all? It remains unclear.

Israel has emphasized repeatedly that the IDF does not directly attack civilian installations.

As to the fallacious charge of "war crimes":

"The law is clear that military targets may be attacked, even if civilian casualties are anticipated, so long as the importance of the military target is proportional to the anticipated civilian casualties and that reasonable efforts are made, consistent with military needs, to minimize civilian casualties. This sensible rule of proportionality was devised in the context of ordinary military encounters, in which the enemy is not using their own civilians as human shields. If the enemy is deliberately using civilians as human shields, the rules of proportionality should allow for more anticipated civilian casualties, especially if the target is of great military significance.

"…To be sure, the law of proportionality also required Israel to take reasonable steps, consistent with its military needs, to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, even when attacking legitimate military targets. The key word here is ‘reasonable,' and Israel has gone well beyond what other countries have done in analogous situations. They issued warnings, by leaflet, phone and other means-warnings that Hamas countermanded in its efforts to keep civilians in harm's way and continue to have them serve as human shields to protect their terror tunnels. Israel did not issue warnings when it needed to act quickly to save its own soldiers from ambushes and other serious risks. Israel thus tried to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, while Hamas tried to increase both Palestinian and Israeli civilian casualties."

The charges of "war crimes" and "violations of international law" are leveled by UNRWA without basis in fact.

UNRWA distortions of fact and outrageous statements

According to Sami Meshesha, a spokesperson for UNRWA:

"[the] majority of dead and injured are women and children, which is of profound concern to UNRWA"

Were this the case, it would suggest random attacks by the IDF on innocent civilians. But in point of fact, this statement is fallacious.

The ratio of those killed in the Gaza operation is 81.9 male to 18.1 female. What is more, among males killed, almost half were men between the ages of 18 and 28, with men between the ages of 29 and 48 comprising another 20%.

What this indicates is that we are not looking at a pattern of indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, but rather a high percentage of those likely to be combatants killed.

The number of children counted among the dead was 18%, even though a full half of the population of Gaza is under 14 years of age.

These figures, put out by Al-Jazeera, indicate a pattern that is not random.

After the final ceasefire was established, Chris Gunness gave an interview to Linda Tamim, which is linked here.:

It is in the course of the very first minute of this interview that he makes statements that reflect a breathtaking failure to acknowledge the Hamas role in the conflict, and that do a severe injustice to the IDF.

He says:

"…the defenseless people (of Gaza) have been subjected to a dehumanizing bombardment. They were ordered out of their homes by the Israeli army, they had to walk through battlegrounds, found themselves in UN compounds, some of them were hit in those compounds by the same army…

"[This was] an industrial scale denial of their human dignity."

Where is Hamas in this description? One might think that the Israeli army came into Gaza for the specific purpose of making the lives of the civilians miserable.

The most egregiously offensive statement made by Gunness is that "they were ordered out of their homes by the Israeli army." As if this was one part of a package of strong arm techniques designed to cause misery.

This would not have been necessary had Hamas not chosen to store and launch weapons near those homes. In asking people to leave, the IDF was demonstrating a concern for human life, a concern that Hamas exhibited not at all.

As to civilians being hit in the compounds "by that same army," he is leveling a blanket charge that is neither fair nor reasonable. Some Hamas rockets fell short of their targets and landed inside Gaza. Some Hamas mortar shells hit Gazan civilians.

On July 16, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness tweeted the following:

"Great interviewee @ Shifa Hosp Gaza right now Prof Mads Gilbert … call him 4 fatality & cas figs and atoms."

Ron Prosor, Israeli Ambassador to the UN, then drafted a letter to UNRWA's Commissioner-General protesting that what Gunness did was highly inappropriate because Gilbert was:

"…an outspoken proponent of terrorist attacks against civilians. In September 2001, Dr. Gilbert explicitly supported the ‘moral right' of Al-Qaeda to perpetrate the 9/11 terrorist attacks against thousands of American civilians."

UNRWA political involvement

The very thrust of UNRWA's involvement in Gaza has become politicized. But here we have one very specific political statement, made by Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson:

"Huge swathes of Gaza have been levelled. We cannot rebuild it with our hands tied behind our back.

"The blockade must end. We are beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone."

Once again, Gunness leaves Hamas out of the picture. He does not acknowledge that the sea blockade is designed to prevent weapons from getting to Hamas, which would use them against Israeli civilians. And he certainly does not call for the demilitarization of Hamas.

He simply steps in and demands precisely what Hamas is seeking: the lifting of the blockade. So that Gaza can be rebuilt, he says.

For the record: He is in error regarding "huge swathes" of Gaza having been leveled. Less than 5% of the area of Gaza was hit by the IDF.

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