|Israel Resource Review
||2nd July, 2002
Critics pressing U.N.R.W.A,
investigate the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency, which
is accused of allowing terrorism to flourish in the refugee
camps it services, are falling flat on Capitol Hill and in the United Nations.
But those pressing the issue, including Jewish groups, say they will
Scrutiny of the U.N. agency began with Israel's Operation Protective
Wall, launched in April to root out terrorism in the West Bank.
One-third of Palestinian suicide bombers have come from the refugee camp
of Jenin, serviced by UNRWA.
Israel's operation confirmed an elaborate terrorist infrastructure in
the camp and set into motion a clamor for an investigation into the
negligence or even abetment by the U.N. agency that gets 30 percent of
its funding, or nearly $90 million a year, from the United States.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) sent letters
to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for an investigation into
UNRWA. Lantos' harsher, more detailed letter calls the agency "complicit
Staff of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee
have made investigative tours of the UNRWA camps.
And Alan Baker, legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry, visited
Washington last week to raise the issue with the State Department,
members of Congress and the media.
In the last month, two senior UNRWA staff members have defended the
agency in closed-door briefings to staff of the House International
Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While the efforts have resulted in dialogue, there are no State
Department or legislative plans to withhold funding of the agency. And
Capitol Hill insiders say a congressional hearing on the subject is
unlikely anytime soon.
It would not be politic for the United States to withhold the paychecks
for the 11,000 Palestinians working for UNRWA in the West Bank and Gaza,
according to one House staffer.
"We think we're making some of our points by having a dialogue with
UNRWA," another congressional source said. The "hearing process is not
always the best way" to "move the ball on this."
For his part, Annan responded to the lawmakers' letters, defending UNRWA
and blaming local authorities for security matters.
"The United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in
refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory," Annan
"Depending on whether a camp lies in Israeli or Palestinian-controlled
areas, either the government of Israel or the Palestinian Authority is
responsible for preventing unlawful activities," he continued.
"Far from being complicit with terrorism, the United Nations is striving
to alleviate human suffering in the area" and "help the parties renew
their negotiations on a permanent status agreement," Annan wrote.
In his letters to Lantos and Specter, Annan included a detailed
explanation by UNRWA's commissioner general, Peter Hansen, who
reiterated that UNRWA does not "supervise" the camps, and stated that
the agency has won approval by Israel and the United States.
Israel concedes that UNRWA does important humanitarian work on behalf of
But Israel has been long concerned about certain aspects of UNRWA, said
Mark Regev, spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
"Events in Jenin led to a heightened awareness" of UNRWA's failure to
halt terror and pushed the issue into "higher gear," he said.
Israel was particularly incensed by "U.N. officials giving credence to
Jenin massacre rubbish," Regev added, referring to the rumors, since
proven unfounded, that Israel carried out a massacre during its military
But Israel's outspokenness has little "bearing on this issue," according
to one Hill staffer.
"You may not like what UNRWA does or doesn't do but their mission is
very clearly defined," she said, referring to the popular complaint that
UNRWA - unlike the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which seeks a
"durable solution" for the world's refugees - keeps Palestinians in
Any change to UNRWA's mandate, which is providing humanitarian relief
without a role in finding a solution to the refugee problem, will have
to take place at the U.N.'s General Assembly, where Israel and the
United States are likely to find few supporters, she said.
That mandate, along with the low financial contribution by Arab
countries to UNRWA, remain "ongoing concerns" for Lantos, one of his
However, Lantos, at the helm of the congressional crusade of inquiry
into UNRWA, has no immediate plans to sponsor legislation on the
For its part, a State Department official said, "the Department of State
is working with UNRWA to ensure that they are taking every possible
measure to protect their facilities and assistance programs from misuse
by criminal elements."
However, she said, "We note that ultimately it is the responsibility of
the local authority" and "we've urged the Palestinian Authority to act
effectively in the camps where it has responsibility."
But passing the buck to local authorities is disingenuous, according to
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been pressing
"They're trying to shirk their responsibility," said AIPAC's press
secretary, Joshua Block.
The UNRWA refugee camps are "the shelter for terrorist groups that
launch attacks against Israeli civilians," Block said.
AIPAC will continue to push for hearings on the U.N. agency, he said,
adding that members of Congress are interested in pursuing the issue.
The World Jewish Congress, which is also lobbying Congress to examine
UNRWA, agreed the issue is not over in Washington.
The WJC is seeking for Congress and the Bush administration to take a
"closer look" at UNRWA, whether that's an internal investigation or open
hearings in Congress, a WJC official said.
This piece ran on the JTA wire on July 2, 2002
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Keeping the UN in Line
So far this
year, US diplomats have secured the removal of Mary
Robinson,High Commissioner for Human Rights; Josť Bustani, head
of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; and
Robert Watson, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change. They were ousted because they weren't doing what
Washington told them to do.
In the line of fire now are UNRWA, the agency that for more than fifty
years has fed and educated Palestinian refugees, and its head,
Peter Hansen; and Secretary General Kofi Annan, once lauded by
US Jewish organizations for opening doors for Israel.
Both cases are egregious examples of blaming the victim.
At the time of Israel's takeover of Jenin, Hansen condemned the refusal
of the Israel Defense Forces to allow ambulances and relief workers into the camp.
He also protested the Israeli use of UNRWA schools as military posts and
interrogation centers and the destruction of the agency's clinics. Around the same time, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres invited Kofi Annan to send in investigators. This suggestion was enthusiastically moved in the Security Council by US ambassador John Negroponte.
Israel promptly announced that it would not accept Robinson, Hansen and
UN Special Representative for the peace process Terje Roed Larsen as
Then it made it clear that it would not cooperate with anyone sent by the
By then, Annan himself was under fire. Within a month of becoming
president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Mort Zuckerman was assailing him and Hansen and declaring that "UNRWA is the godfather to all terrorist training schools, notably in Jenin."
AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, joined in with a press release headed "Camps of Terror," alleging that "as the sole agency mandated to manage the Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA has effectively turned a blind eye
toward terror activities within the camps . . . Inside the camps, where
99 percent of UNRWA's staff is comprised of locally recruited Palestinian refugees, food storage facilities and warehouses have become depots for ammunition and explosives to be used in terror attacks against Israelis."
That led to a joint call by Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House
International Relations Committee, and Tom DeLay, the GOP whip, for Congressional hearings on UNRWA, with a suggestion of ending US funding, which pays for a third of UNRWA operations.
Jumping on the bandwagon, Republican Eric Cantor of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism repeated the allegations.
Hansen has pointed out that the agency's sole responsibility is
education, health and feeding the refugees: It has never administered the camps or maintained any police force.
He added that from 1967 on, "We have not received from the
Government of Israel any complaint related to the misuse of any of our
installations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip . . . Since October 2000 to-date, and even though hundreds of UNRWA staff have been detained and subsequently released, the Israeli authorities have never provided any information or lodged any complaint with UNRWA concerning
the official or private activities of any UNRWA staff member."
There is a very real fear that Lantos & Co. will soon demand Hansen's
head as the price for continued UNRWA funding. He was recently reappointed to another term, but so was Bustani just before he got the boot. Also in his first year of a second term is Kofi Annan, who is about to produce a report on Jenin mandated by the General Assembly. Even Israeli government lawyers admit that the IDF breached international humanitarian law in Jenin, which was why Israel changed its mind about allowing the
inquiry. People close to the Secretary General are beginning to worry
thathe will come under increasing attack in the same spirit of vilifying the messenger, and that the Likud-tinged alliance with the Christian and conservative right will revive the old attacks on the UN.
So far, the State Department has been defending UNRWA on Capitol Hill,
and Colin Powell has a close rapport with Annan. But it remains to be seen how long this outpost of lucidity can hold against the faith-based foreign policy follies of the rest of the Administration and many members of Congress.
This ran on the July 25th issue of "The Nation"
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