JERUSALEM (Mar. 7)
Israeli politicians are up in arms about an American United Nations worker they claim did nothing to stop the mob lynching of an Israeli who entered a Gaza Strip refugee camp by mistake last week.
The worker, Catherine Striker of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, witnessed at least part of the attack in which dozens of Palestinian youths stoned Yehoshua Weissbrod and shot him dead in a brutal murder that has shaken the nation.
Knesset members from both the governing coalition and the opposition are demanding that Striker be fired from her position and expelled from the country.
But UNRWA has defended her action. The agency said in a statement that the mob prevented Striker from approaching Weissbrod’s car and that she did try to summon outside help.
The army said it was conducting an inquiry into the incident. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said during Sunday’s weekly Cabinet session that if the U.N. worker was found to have ignored the lynching, Israel would launch a formal complaint.
The demand to expel Striker was shared Sunday by Labor Knesset member Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He said that if it were established that Striker ignored the lynching, then she should be suspended from her duties at once and expelled from the country.
Relations have always been sensitive between Israel and UNRWA, the agency created to look after Palestinian refugees and supply them with food, housing, educational and medical services.
Israel allows UNRWA personnel to monitor conditions and run certain operations at refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also operates at Palestinian refugee camps in Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
UNRWA claimed there was not much Striker could have done to save the life of Weissbrod, a gas company employee who mistakenly entered Rafah refugee camp March 2 on his way to conduct business near the Israeli-Egyptian border.
A spokesman for UNRWA in Geneva said Sunday that each and every one of its workers was obliged to save human life and that anyone failing to do so would face disciplinary measures.
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The initial Israeli version of events is that when Striker arrived on the scene, after the attack had begun, she was told by several people what was going on.
They reportedly asked her to prevent the murder or at the very least summon help. However, according to this testimony, Striker ignored the pleas and drove off without intervening at all.
But a spokesman for UNRWA in Gaza said Sunday that Striker arrived at the scene by chance and noticed an Israeli-licensed car surrounded by large crowd of people.
“As the official approached, she noticed that there was a motionless body in the car. At this point, she repeatedly tried to get close, but was prevented from doing so by the crowd,” he said.
“After more unsuccessful attempts to get near, in what was certainly a highly explosive and volatile situation, and many equally futile endeavors to contact the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza town by radio, she sped out to the nearest and safest location, an UNRWA installation 500 meters away, in order to raise alarm over the phone,” he said.
Striker returned to the scene after failing to summon help, but it was too late, the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, security forces were still looking for the gunmen who shot Weissbrod after the rock-throwing attack. A curfew on the camp remained in effect for the sixth consecutive day.
Weissbrod’s brutal murder in the Gaza Strip, as well as a bloody stabbing spree a day earlier by a Gazan Palestinian that left two Israelis dead, have renewed calls by some Israelis for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel must not withdraw from the territory in the absence of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.