Israel Resource Review 28th May, 2002


UNRWA attacks Weeky Standard reporter David Tell . . . and David Tell responds
David Tell
Columnist, The Weekly Standard

In recent weeks the Weekly Standard has published a number of articles concerning the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). These have contained a large number of serious inaccuracies and misinterpretations. Among these articles were David Tell's The U.N.'s Israel Problem (May 6) and Charles Krauthammer's Kofi's Choice and Dov B. Fischer's The Overseers of Jenin (May 13). Please allow me to set the record straight.

  1. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was set up in 1949 to provide humanitarian services to Palestinian refugees who had lost their homes during the war of 1948, pending a political solution to their problem. (Unlike the Jews who fled from Arab countries in the same period--and the Muslims who fled India in 1947--the Palestinian refugees had no state of their own to go to.) This role is quite different from the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is mainly to ensure that states fulfill their obligations to protect refugees and asylum-seekers under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

  2. Israel specifically requested that UNRWA continue to play its role in the occupied territory after 1967, and since then has frequently repeated that it considers UNRWA's humanitarian work a major factor for stability in the region. This is because UNRWA, far from keeping the refugees in a state of dependency as your writers have claimed, has given them health and educational indicators that compare very well with those in the region, and have thereby enabled the vast majority to support themselves and their families. UNRWA's micro-finance lending and other similar programs have won awards for helping refugees to help themselves out of poverty.

  3. UNRWA does not "wholly fund" or "largely administer" Jenin or any other refugee camp. It simply provides services to refugees, some of whom live in "camps," the majority of whom, in the West Bank, do not. The so-called "camps" are in fact urban ghettos without any clear perimeter or central administration. Enforcement of law and order in them is the responsibility of the civil power--which, in the West Bank and Gaza between 1967 and 1994, was the Israeli government. In the latter year, under the Oslo accords, the camps in "Area A" (including Jenin) were transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

  4. Likewise, it is the civil power that approves the textbooks and curriculum used in schools, including those run by UNRWA. Under the Israeli administration, the textbooks were old Jordanian ones, dating from before 1967. Since 1994, the PA has been replacing these with new ones which, according to a study by Prof. Nathan Brown of the George Washington University, published in November 2001, "make no mention of any location as Palestine outside the territories occupied by Israel in 1967," and "go to some lengths to avoid saying anything about Israel at all," the few exceptions being "hardly pejorative." Israeli academics have confirmed Prof. Brown's findings, and the Israeli representative to the United Nations has praised UNRWA's own initiatives towards promoting tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution in its schools.

  5. UNRWA is scrupulous about protecting its installations against misuse by any person or group. Only once, in Lebanon in 1982, has there been credible evidence of such misuse by Palestinians, and it was promptly dealt with. Since then the Israeli authorities have made no specific allegations about abuse of UNRWA facilities. Nor have they lodged any complaint with UNRWA about the official or private activities of any UNRWA staff member--though they have arrested hundreds of them, and in each case UNRWA immediately writes asking for information about the grounds for the arrest.

  6. UNRWA employees stand for election to the staff union on their own merits (not on political slates), and UNRWA strictly enforces the rules which oblige employees to behave with integrity and impartiality in their official functions.

  7. UNRWA has never hired buses to take refugees on tours of Israel.

  8. The Weekly Standard's characterization of Peter Hansen, UNRWA's Commissioner General as an anti-Semitic "peasant-in-chief" is pure slander and an insult to the intelligence of the magazine's readership. When Hansen spoke about bodies "piling up," he was referring to overflowing morgues he had seen with his own eyes. The mass graves he described were created outside Ramallah Hospital by medical staff and were filmed by the international media, as were the IDF helicopter attacks on Jenin camp and other civilian areas. Peter Hansen's honest, humanitarian response to questions from an interviewer hardly merits the character assassination to which The Weekly Standard has stooped.

    Paul McCann
    Chief, Public Information Office
    UNRWA Headquarters Gaza

    David Tell responds: Should The Weekly Standard remain a going concern for another hundred years, it is almost inconceivable that we will ever again have occasion to publish anything nearly so dishonest as the letter above.

    With his first two complaints--directed against Dov B. Fischer's capsule history of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency ("The Overseers of Jenin," May 13)--that organization's top spokesman establishes a position too patently absurd to waste much ink on. UNRWA, he writes, cannot be held to the slightest degree responsible for the immiseration of those Palestinian refugees it has housed, fed, taught, doctored, and employed for the past 53 years. This, no less, because Palestinian refugees, flush with UNRWA's award-winning "micro-financing lending" and whatnot, aren't actually miserable at all. It's quite possible that Mr. McCann is the only human being on Earth who even pretends to believe such a thing; graphic evidence of abject squalor in UNRWA installations has been a regular feature of international television broadcasts for decades, after all. At very least, McCann's claim should prove surprising news indeed to his colleagues in UNRWA's Department of External Relations, which is at this very moment conducting a "Fourth Emergency Appeal" for donations--on grounds that West Bank and Gaza refugees face a "stark and uncertain future," fully half of them having fallen into poverty.

    Mr. McCann next turns his attention to my own recent editorial charging, among other things, that UNRWA must be considered complicit in Palestinian terrorism launched from within its compounds ("The U.N.'s Israel Obsession," May 6). That a U.N. official should decline to acknowledge the existence of such terrorism is unremarkable. That UNRWA should effectively deny the existence of its own refugee camps, however, is something else altogether. His agency neither funds, administers, nor exercises police authority in "Jenin or any other refugee camp," McCann insists. Instead, UNRWA merely extends "services" to Palestinians who live in "urban ghettos without any clear perimeter or central administration."

    Here again, Mr. McCann has conveniently ignored what UNRWA itself, in every other circumstance, routinely describes as its mission. These purportedly indistinct neighborhoods McCann now airily dismisses as "so-called 'camps'" are called precisely that on UNRWA's website, for example: "official camps" and "recognized refugee camps," each of which the agency specifically identifies down to the exact number of quarter-acre section dunums it comprises. A "camp," according to the "working definition" McCann's front-office superiors have formally adopted and publicized, "is a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government for accommodating Palestine refugees and for setting up facilities to cater to their needs."

    True enough, the provisioning of hooligans to impose "law and order" on the streets of its camps is no longer among the catering services UNRWA offers; Palestinian Authority "policemen," whose salaries the agency previously paid, now perform their lynchings on someone else's dime. But it is also true, such technicalities aside, that a series of Security Council resolutions still in force oblige relevant U.N. representatives to take "appropriate steps to help create a secure environment" in all "situations where refugees [are] . . . vulnerable to infiltration by armed elements." Mr. McCann's letter explicitly defies this mandate. Only when the "armed elements" in question are Israeli, it would seem, does UNRWA become energetically "scrupulous" about protecting "its installations" from taint by violence.

    McCann's account of the history of Palestinian schoolbook publishing is a farce. Israel's U.N. ambassador will no doubt be astonished to find his name invoked on its behalf. Professor Nathan Brown, on the other hand, clearly intends that his November 2001 "study" be put to such use; those passages in the document to which McCann here refers neatly complement the standard apologetics issued by Yasser Arafat's Ministry of Education. Trouble is, though they have concealed by omission all the genuinely essential facts of the case, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Professor Brown nor Mr. McCann has ever bothered to dispute those facts. Which are as follows:

    From 1969 through most of 1995, while West Bank and Gaza schools were being administered by Israel, teachers and students employed Jordanian (and Egyptian) curricular material that had been cleansed of inflammatory political and racial content under a system sponsored by UNESCO. In October 1995, following the transfer of educational responsibilities required by the Oslo accords, UNESCO abrogated this system at the request of the Arab League, and the Palestinian Authority then immediately restored unexpurgated versions of the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks to its classrooms. It is beyond serious dispute that these books, still widely in use, are violently anti-Semitic and shot-through with exhortations to "martyrdom" in the war against "Zionist oppression." For that matter, Prof. Nathan Brown to the contrary notwithstanding, it is beyond serious dispute that the newer, PA-commissioned textbooks gradually being introduced in UNRWA schools are . . . violently anti-Semitic and shot-through with exhortations to "martyrdom" in the war against "Zionist oppression"--as UNWRA has itself previously admitted.

    In 1998, directed to do so by Rep. Peter Deutsch and other concerned congressional appropriators, the U.S. State Department formally requested that UNRWA conduct an internal investigation of allegations that PA-generated curricular materials were infected with hatred of Jews. In response, UNRWA tried mightily to whitewash the problem. One of the books in question, for instance, turned out to include such evocative lessons as this: "Treachery and disloyalty are character traits of the Jews and one should beware of them"; UNRWA's researchers advised the State Department that the phrase could not fairly be considered offensive because it described actual "historical events." Nevertheless, certain aspects of the Palestinian curriculum proved too much even for U.N. functionaries to swallow. In January 1999, the State Department reported to Congress that "UNRWA's review did reveal instances of anti-Semitic characterizations and content in these host-authority texts."

    The PA's education ministry, incidentally, freely acknowledges that it "has not mentioned Israel borders on maps" in those texts. The books have never been revised or withdrawn. And various reports posted on UNRWA's website boast about the fact that "UNRWA staff participated in the design and development of the Palestinian curriculum."

    More than a thousand Israelis are dead as a consequence of hundreds of terrorist attacks originating in UNRWA refugee camps since 1982, but still Paul McCann has the gall to contend that not once in that 20-year period has there been "credible evidence" that Palestinians have "misused" his agency's facilities. Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli army's most recent anti-terrorist sweep through those facilities, has just produced an enormous cache of hard evidence that UNRWA refugee camps are riddled with small-arms factories, explosives laboratories, and suicide-bombing cells. Prime Minister Sharon's office has just in the past few weeks asked the U.N. to "break the bond of silence regarding the misuse of the refugee camps," and Israel's U.N. ambassador has pleaded for the General Assembly, at minimum, to repudiate "the use of a U.N.-administered camp as a center for terrorist activity." But still Paul McCann is unimpressed. He has yet to see any sufficiently "specific allegations."

    I have no idea what information appears on the printed ballots used in leadership elections for UNRWA's employees unions. But news accounts of those elections dating back at least 10 years--in both the local Arabic press and the international media--report the results exclusively in terms of political affiliation: this many seats for Hamas, that many for Islamic Jihad, and so forth. It cannot be a secret to UNRWA headquarters that many of its staff members are sympathizers or actual members of terrorist organizations. They are hardly shy about it. Last July, in the presence of dozens of journalists, the junior high school in UNRWA's Jabalya refugee camp hosted an open-air conference at which Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin urged hundreds of students to martyrdom--only to be followed on stage by one Saheil Alhinadi, officially representing UNRWA's teachers' union, who led the crowd in a hymn of praise to suicide bombers.

    "UNRWA has never hired buses to take refugees on tours of Israel," Mr. McCann tells us. I'm not sure what this business about who "hired" the buses is supposed to prove. What it cannot disprove, in any case, is the point I was trying to make by mentioning the phenomenon in the first place: that UNRWA actively and unapologetically abets and sustains the basic engine of Palestinian terrorism, the irredentist fantasy that refugee-camp residents will someday realize their "right of return" to property within Israel long ago "stolen" by "the Jews." Every year, during the May anniversary of Al-Nakba, what the Palestinians call the "disaster" of Israel's Independence Day, UNRWA-financed projects like the Union of Youth Activities Centers sponsor gigantic "right of return" rallies throughout the West Bank and Gaza. From which rallies, the state of the intifada permitting, buses then take refugees on tours of "their" Israeli villages. A first-person diary of one such trip is prominently featured on the Dheisheh refugee camp website. News footage of another such trip has been broadcast by the BBC World Service. Yet another such trip has been recorded for posterity in a video documentary nominated for one of this year's Academy Awards. Paul McCann protests too little.

    A final word about Mr. McCann's boss, UNRWA commissioner-general Peter Hansen. No man has done more to circulate lurid fictions about an Israeli mass murder of unarmed civilians in the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp--or done it with greater relish--than Peter Hansen. As Paul McCann reminds us, Hansen once spoke of bodies "piling up" in Ramallah Hospital, site of an entirely separate, and equally fanciful, Israeli "atrocity." But Hansen has otherwise devoted the bulk of his imaginative energies to Jenin. The official transcript admits of no other interpretation: His reference to "incidences of mass graves," during an April 5 teleconference from UNRWA's Jerusalem office, involved not Ramallah but Jenin. Ditto for Hansen's report, to the Reuters news agency, that "armed activists who were there obviously slipped away before the Israelis moved in--so the exercise of force was mainly vis-a-vis the civilian population." Ditto for Hansen's April 7 announcement that "helicopters are strafing civilian areas," something that simply never happened, though McCann now bizarrely suggests there is film of it.

    Claiming to have "seen the reality with my own eyes".

    This article ran in the June 3, 2002 issue of The Weeky Standard, a Washington based publication.

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    How Europe's Media Lost Out
    Martin Sieff
    UPI Senior News Analyst

    WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- After the Israeli army launched its retaliatory strike into the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank in early April, the international media was filled with reports that the Israelis had possibly killed hundreds, even thousands, of Palestinian civilians. The reports were disproved and even the PA revised its official figure for Palestinians killed in the fierce fighting to 56. Here, United Press International traces the course of this "media myth" and the reasons it became so influential and was so widely believed.

    The U.S and Western European media covered the Jenin "Massacre That Wasn't" in radically different ways over the past month. The American media came out way on top and the European media, especially state-run broadcasting outlets, came out by far the losers.

    This was not an anticipated outcome on either side of the Atlantic. It was, in fact, a further humiliation for Western European governments and left-leaning media leaders. They were already reeling from the humiliations of seeing a virtual fascist make the last two in France's presidential election and the assassination of radical political leader Pim Fortuyn in The Netherlands. That was the kind of violent political outburst that most Western Europeans have long comfortably believed could only happen in America, not to them.

    Not every press or news organizations in Western Europe came out badly from the controversy over what the Israeli army did or did not do in Jenin. Media outlets like the London Sunday Times, Il Foglio in Rome and Le Monde in Paris that refused to be swept away by the hysteria gained in credibility greatly.

    Even other media outlets like The Guardian of London newspaper or the Associated Press in the United States that at first reported the exaggerated claims, but then took care to present the counter evidence when it came in, showed their basic integrity. Papers like the London Times and Independent, which did not do remotely as much as The Guardian in running pieces documenting their own, and others, factual failings, fared far less well.

    The affair of the Jenin "Massacre Myth" did not debunk the basic credibility of the Western media. The truth emerged at the end of the day. But the U.S. media overall were winners by far at the expense of the Western European ones.

    Time magazine's in-depth reporting, for example, proved to be by the end of the day a model of how to reconstruct complex events far away under the pressure of intensely tight bylines. Its May 13 reconstruction of the battle of Jenin is likely to prove a major resource for future historians

    The credibility of state-run or supported national broadcasting organizations took a huge hit. The principle of having a free market in broadcasting as well as print media outlets in order to ensure more fair and balanced overall coverage got a big boost. This was humiliating to the Europeans, who have long sneered in their dominant broadcast media culture at what they regard as the crass commercialism and vulgar pursuit of profits of competing U.S. broadcasting networks.

    It was also a blow to those who would like to expand National Public Radio's small-scale radio news operation in the United States into a radio-TV news empire on the lines of the BBC or other European outlets. The reporters and editors of NPR appeared far more prone to swallow the wild allegations about Jenin than most of their U.S. media colleagues did.

    The controversy also underlined the value of having widely read and circulated columnists who can act in the media like the Senate does in Congress or other "upper" houses of parliament do in Western Europe and Japan. Such columnists at their best can act like deliberative parliamentary chambers not subject to the pressures of repeated re-election campaigns. They can take a longer term view of things. They can act as cautious, more thoughtful voices expressing caution or doubt about emotional hysteria sweeping the news pages. William F. Buckley's May 4 editorial "Did the Israelis Do It?" serves as a model for this kind of writing.

    Some European columnists did not do nearly so well. A.N. Wilson's willingness in the London Evening Standard to accuse the Israelis, without any credible evidence, of poisoning Palestinian water supplies showed the way columnists could break every restraint of decency and common sense. Wilson's article would have been at home in the pages of the Nazi propaganda sheet "Der Sturmer."

    The U.S. and Western European media coverage of the Jenin Massacre Myth raises troubling and far-reaching questions about the reliability of mass media and press in conflict situations.

    The practice of war reporting is a dirty, complicated business at the best of times. War, as wise figures from Carl Von Clausewitz to the fictional Capt. James T. Kirk of "Star Trek" have repeatedly noted, is a messy, unsure business. War is chaos incarnate both for those who wage it and for those who cover them. Military history flourishes, and no doubt always will do, by reflecting at leisure on events imperfectly understood when they were being experienced.

    But even allowing for this inherent condition of uncertainty and chaos -- what Clausewitz called the inevitable and unavoidable "friction" of war -- Western media coverage of Jenin, especially in Western European newspapers, stood out for its wild and remarkably uniform hysteria. An overwhelming number of reports were published or broadcast in outlets, more especially of the left but also of the right, appearing to document in great detail the massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli Army.

    Official spokesmen of the Palestinian Authority supported and confirmed these estimates and fed these reports, yet PA spokesmen themselves later heavily revised these estimates downwards and eventually acknowledge that no massacre at all had taken place. The PA's final estimate of Palestinians killed in the Battle of Jenin was 66, while Israel said that 23 of its own troops were killed.

    Given the disparity in firepower involved, the Palestinians understandably hailed this as a great morale-boosting victory for their cause, even though attacking forces normally suffer far higher casualties than defending ones in such intense street fighting.

    But the small scale in casualties in Jenin, ultimately confirmed by the PA itself, underlined the remarkable loss in perspective across the European media in both reporting what was happening and then analyzing it. The initial decision of the Israelis to keep the media out of Jenin while the fighting raged does not account for this. The most hysterical and inaccurate accounts and the wildest, unsubstantiated claims came not while the international media was barred from Jenin but after it was allowed in.

    Yet, compared with conflicts of the past half-century, and even of merely the past 10 years, the death toll on both sides, including Palestinians, in Jenin was tiny. Scores of thousands of people were killed largely at the hands of Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups from 1991 to 1995. The total death toll of that conflict, unquestionably Europe's bloodiest since 1945, has been estimated as at high as 250,000.

    While it was ranging, 1 million people were killed in less than a month when majority Hutus slaughtered the generally more educated and more prosperous Tutsi minority in Rwanda in 1994. The killings were deliberately coordinated. The death squads usually had no heavier weapons than machetes but it ranks behind only the Cambodian Killing Fields of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in 1975-78 as the biggest genuine genocide of the past half-century. And it was carried out without any advanced weapons or technology -- even machineguns -- at a rate of slaughter comparable to the operations of the Auschwitz gas chambers during the Nazi annihilation of 6 million Jews during World War II.

    In each of these cases, the Western media were remarkably fast to record indications of what was going on, but Western opinion lagged far behind. The Clinton administration in the United States proved exceptionally indecisive, slow and inadequate to act in any decisive diplomatic or military way to deter the slaughters in either Bosnia or Rwanda, even though it could easily have done so.

    The United Nations far from preventing either of the slaughters taking place, actually magnified them by the egocentric insistence of its officials in the region on approving deterrent military or rescue operations in Bosnia, most notably at Sebrenica.

    They also catastrophically underrated the imminence and scale of the danger in Rwanda. Indeed, the U.N. official most criticized for his alleged incompetence in failing to prevent the Rwanda horror was one of the most outspoken critics of Israel in the case of The Massacre That Wasn't -- current U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan.

    When these genuine massacres took place, there were certainly no mass rallies or protests across Western Europe and certainly no retaliatory physical attacks on Serb or Rwandan residents in Britain, France or Germany.

    Yet media reports teemed in those countries with -- as it turned out -- highly exaggerated or just plain wrong descriptions of the violence allegedly inflicted by the Israelis on the Palestinians in Jenin. And as these reports ran, they were quickly followed by attacks -- largely, it appears, from young immigrant Muslim gangs -- on easily identifiable Orthodox Jews in both Britain and France.

    Press reporting is far from a precise science and experienced reporters, especially war correspondents, have a universal contempt for pressure groups of both the left and the right that claim they are always inherently biased, corrupt, incompetent and just plain wrong. More often than not, the accusations of media bias made by such groups are discounted because they are either the result of unavoidable human error, insufficient data available, or the accusations themselves are just plain wrong.

    Even when they are right, the multiplicity of media organizations with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of reporters competing to get the edge on each other on the same story has long been comfortably -- and usually correctly -- taken as the free media's equivalent of the free market. That competition serves as a healthy leveling mechanism in which self-interest serves as the motivation to expose incompetence or direct dishonesty on the part of others. But as this series has documented, it did not work that way in Jenin. And we have explored the reasons why this was so.

    In an ideal world, the appropriate lessons would immediately be learned. But in practice, things may well go on very much as before. That is, as the legendary London Daily Telegraph columnist Michael Wharton, writing as Peter Simple, might have put it, "The Way of the World."

    The already worrying gaps in politics, diplomacy and mutual perceptions between the United States and its old European allies is likely to grow in the media field as well. The common media culture and dialogue across the Atlantic may be another loser of the Jenin Massacre Myth.

    Published on May 22, 2002 on the UPI wire.

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