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Charges Against U.N. Agency Highlight Complex Relationship

The battle between Israel and the United Nations agency that aids Palestinians intensified on several fronts this week. First, Israel charged that Palestinians in Gaza used a U.N. ambulance to transport a rocket.

Then the U.N.’s top refugee official admitted that some of his staff are Hamas members.

A day later, the Israel Defense Forces chief of operations, Yisrael Ziv, said that Israel had arrested 13 Palestinians employed by the United Nations on suspicion of terrorism links.

Together, the developments provided more fodder to those who accuse UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, of turning a blind eye to terrorism in its midst.

And they highlighted the complicated — and contentious — relationship that exists between Israel and the U.N. agency.

Even as Israel climbed down a bit Tuesday, saying it needed to further investigate whether the video image on which the latest charge was based actually depicted a rocket, critics of the United Nations asserted that the developments show the agency’s tolerance of terrorist activity within its refugee camps is tantamount to complicity.

UNRWA — which provides humanitarian assistance, education services and health care to 4.1 million Palestinians, 1.3 million of whom live in 59 UNRWA refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — has long rejected the charge.

The agency’s defenders respond that some of Israel’s supporters are campaigning to discredit an institution that promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Where Israel accuses, and sometimes arrests, UNRWA staffers for terrorist activities or abuse of U.N. facilities, the agency says that at most, such instances represent the work of a few bad apples.

To some U.N. watchers, the problem is systemic.

“There may be individuals who do things, but it happens within a context that is not unsupportive of terrorist activities,” says Harris O. Schoenberg, a longtime nongovernmental activist at the United Nations and the author of “Combating Terrorism: The Role of the U.N.”

“The U.N. is basically tilted to the Arab side, and within that context, UNRWA is one of the worst examples.”

On Monday, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, delivered to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan aerial footage purported to show a Palestinian loading a Kassam rocket into the back of a van clearly marked “U.N.”

Gillerman called for a full U.N. investigation and the firing of UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Peter Hansen.

After viewing the footage, the Gaza based Hansen — a native of Denmark — said the long, thin item carried by a man in the video was not a weapon but a folded up, portable stretcher.

Nevertheless, he authorized a four-member U.N. team that was already headed to the region Tuesday to investigate the ambulance incident as well.

Annan also agreed to investigate. But in a news conference Monday, his spokesman said the U.N. chief “has no reason whatever to doubt Hansen’s conclusions,” adding that “Hansen has warned that such serious allegations can endanger the safety of U.N. humanitarian workers in the region.”

The IDF on Tuesday pulled the video from its Web site for further evaluation and released a one-line statement: “The IDF is reviewing the analysis of the footage in which UNRWA vehicles are seen involved in suspicious activity in the combat zone in Gaza.”

On Monday afternoon, though, an Israeli U.N. official insisted to JTA, “The army checked it. We checked it. We didn’t just show it without checking it. It shows them loading a weapon. We’re calling for a serious investigation.”

An UNRWA official described the incident to JTA as the latest in a series of “baseless” charges against the agency.

Earlier this year, Israel accused UNRWA of transporting injured terrorists in a U.N. ambulance; UNRWA responded that its driver was forced to do it at gunpoint.

“We’ve had good working relations with the government of Israel throughout the years, though there have been times when the relationship is strained, as it is now,” says Maher Nasser, UNRWA’s representative in New York.

“There is a level of frustration, where we expect the Israeli government to come to us if they have a video allegedly showing misuse of UNRWA vehicles, instead of going to the media and misinterpreting it in a way that’s harmful to our operation and our reputation.”

Meanwhile, in an interview Sunday with the Canadian broadcaster CBC, Hansen said: “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don’t see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant, and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”

The United States, European Union and Canada have branded Hamas, an organization bent on Israel’s destruction, a terrorist group.

Canada — which contributes $10 million a year to UNRWA — said it wanted “clarification” of Hansen’s comments.

Washington also reacted strongly, but it was unclear what action, if any, it might take.

The United States is UNRWA’s largest donor, contributing 30 percent of its $350 million annual budget.

According to Section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, UNRWA must “take all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”

In an e-mail to JTA, UNRWA’s Nasser sought to clarify his boss’ position.

“The interview that Mr. Hansen gave to CBC was one of many he had given that day and the reference in the interview to Hamas members being on UNRWA’s payroll refers to Hamas sympathizers not ‘members,’ ” Nasser wrote.

“The statement should not be taken out of context, and in the follow-up paragraphs Mr. Hansen stressed that while one cannot know what is in the heart and mind of staff, we do care about their behavior and actions, which we expect to be of the highest standards expected of U.N. staff members.”

Hansen has often drawn Israeli ire for perceived one-sided denunciations of Israeli actions, with no mention of terrorist activities.

Most famously, he suggested that hundreds of Palestinians were killed in Israel’s April 2002 assault on the Jenin refugee camp. A U.N. probe later concluded that several dozen Palestinians, mostly militants, were killed.

His latest comments about Hamas are “typical of Hansen, but I’ve heard worse,” says a Toronto researcher and longtime analyst of Canadian U.N. policy who asked not to be identified.

“In the Canadian Parliament, he got into a shouting match with some parliamentarians, basically called them idiots because they wouldn’t accept his perspective on life, which is in total contrast to Israel’s. He’s really become a hostage to the Palestinian perspective.”

UNRWA’s failure to do “political vetting” is one of many structural and procedural flaws that some observers say has stacked the deck against Israel.

The agency began its work in 1950, shortly after Israel’s creation.

According to the UNRWA Web site, “Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

“UNRWA’s definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948.”

The number of UNRWA registered refugees has soared from 914,000 in 1950 to 4.1 million in 2002, rising yearly at a “natural population growth” of 3.5 percent.

Palestinian refugees are unique within the U.N. system in that they have their own U.N. agency, while the rest of the world’s refugees are tended to by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Pro-Israel critics charge that while the high commissioner focuses on resettlement of refugees, UNRWA awaits a political resolution to the Middle East conflict.

Thus, they charge, it nurtures the dream of a full “right of return,” which in turn helps perpetuate the conflict further.

Critics also accuse UNRWA of supplying textbooks that incite hatred, even violence, against Israel and Jews; inflating the number of refugees by blurring the definition of “who is a refugee,” and providing services to some Palestinians who are in fact more than economically self-sufficient.

In a November 2003 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, UNRWA defended its resistance to taking “all possible measures,” as called for in the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, because of the danger of asking sensitive questions about group affiliations in such a hostile environment, and the difficulty of verifying whether someone is telling the truth.

So UNRWA lawyers lobbied for watered-down constraints — that the agency not “knowingly” assist clients affiliated with terrorism.

For its part, the United States has failed to define what “all possible measures” means.

And the issue is further complicated by UNRWA suspicion of Israel’s intelligence agencies and justice system. When Israel detains UNRWA staffers, even convicts them of certain crimes, UNRWA demands to see the evidence, as it has with the recent footage, often brushing aside the charges as dubious or baseless. And if a conviction is made, UNRWA scoffs at Israeli justice.

For its part, Israel often refuses to back up its charges by showing evidence, describing its secrecy as a matter of national security. Some Israeli officials criticize this policy as a threat that rings hollow and generates bad P.R. for Israel.

And while some voices in Israel and within North American Jewry have long called for UNRWA’s ouster from the territories, or for Washington to cut off funding, Israeli leadership has consistently expressed support for the agency’s work, most recently in a U.N. General Assembly resolution last December.

The reasons are simple, observers say: First, Israel would then have to take over responsibility for welfare of the refugees; and second, it doesn’t want its conflict with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and assorted terrorist groups to be seen as a war on all Palestinians. Denying them international assistance would lead to a major public-relations hit.

So Israel pushes to reform the agency, not abolish it.

“UNRWA is a part of the U.N. and Israel is a member of the U.N.,” says an Israeli U.N. official. “But we expect them to be objective and work for peace, not for terror, not shelter terrorists, or put bombs in their ambulances.”

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