Armed gunmen roamed freely in United Nations refugee camps. They stockpiled weapons, recruited refugees and launched cross-border attacks. In response, opposing forces attacked the camps, aiming for the gunmen — but sometimes cutting down civilians in the process.
The international community was troubled both by the instability fomented and the thought of the beleaguered refugees — exploited within the camps, denied a truly safe haven, then caught in the crossfire.
So the United Nations took action.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced a pair of landmark reports singling out the militarization of refugee camps as a cause of conflict and insecurity. He called for the “separation of armed elements from refugee populations” to maintain the camps’ civilian character. And he outlined several steps to police the camps.
The U.N. Security Council followed suit in 1998 with Resolution 1208, defending the sanctity of refugee camps and criminalizing their militarization.
What was the source of this international concern — the Palestinian camps in Gaza and the West Bank? No, it was Africa in the mid-1990s, when civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and elsewhere unleashed torrents of refugees across the continent.
To defenders of Israel, the scenario described above sounds familiar. They question why the world body has never applied Resolution 1208 to the 27 U.N. refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which were a prime source of attacks during the violent Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.
Security Council resolutions carry the weight of international law — and Resolution 1208 itself makes note of the fact that it should be universally applied.
The question of the Palestinian exception to 1208 is more than theoretical. Despite moves toward reform in other areas, the U.N. General Assembly is unlikely to make any changes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides relief and social services to the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, an appeal to the Security Council to apply Resolution 1208 may be a viable option if, as some predict, the intifada is renewed and terrorists again use UNRWA camps to plan and launch attacks against Israel.
Annan himself underscored the universality of Resolution 1208 in March 2001 when reports of similar abuses emerged from refugee camps in West Timor.
“Not separating combatants from civilians allows armed groups to take control of a camp and its population, politicizing their situation and gradually establishing a military culture within the camp,” Annan wrote. “The impact on the safety and security of both the refugees and the neighboring local population is severe. Entire camp populations can be held hostage by militias that operate freely in the camps, spread terror, press-gang civilians, including children, into serving their forces.”
Yet Annan hasn’t voiced similar outrage regarding Palestinian militancy in UNRWA camps.
For example, on Oct. 6, 2002, Palestinians in the Khan Yunis camp in Gaza launched a mortar attack on a Jewish settlement. The next day Israel fired a missile from a helicopter gunship, killing 14 people, among them accused militants and civilians.
On Oct. 8, Annan issued a statement deploring Israel’s “military attack in civilian areas” and the Jewish state’s “reckless disregard” for civilian life. However, he ignored the fact that the original mortar attack was launched from among civilians, settling for a bland “appeal to both sides to halt all violent and provocative acts.”
One Jewish group lodged a protest with the U.N. chief. Harry Reicher, at the time the U.N. representative for Agudath Israel World Organization, wrote Annan to contrast his outspokenness on West Timor with his “silence” on “the continuing strategy, pursued by the leadership of the Palestinians, of locating terrorists, as well as caches of their arms, in heavily-populated civilian areas” and the “use of civilian men, women and children as human shields.”
UNRWA says it acknowledges Israel’s security needs and right to self-defense, but that civilian well-being should take priority.
An UNRWA defender agrees.
“Of course there are people trying to use these places, but having armed people inside the camps doesn’t legitimize Israel’s attacks on civilians,” says Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
Yet critics say that if UNRWA really is concerned about civilians, it should speak out against any action that endangers them — including Palestinian attacks, launched from among civilians, that provoke Israeli retaliation.
What could be more guaranteed to encourage the Palestinian use of refugees as human shields “than the certain knowledge that, if Palestinian civilians are tragically killed, it is Israel that will be blamed by the United Nations?” asked Reicher, a professor of international law at the University of Pennsylvania.
The militarization of UNRWA camps is not a recent revelation: Back in 1982, President Reagan accused UNRWA of allowing its Lebanese camps to become armed bastions of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Forced to investigate when Reagan threatened to withhold U.S. funding for the organization, UNRWA admitted that several camps indeed had been militarized.
While the Security Council hasn’t enforced 1208 in the Palestinian territories, it has applied pressure on militant Palestinian refugees elsewhere.
Resolution 1559, passed in September 2004, demanded that “foreign forces” — an allusion to Syria — withdraw from Lebanon. Syria finally did end its 29-year occupation last April, two months after being implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Resolution 1559 also calls for the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” — a reference to the pro-Syrian Hezbollah militia and to Palestinian terrorist groups in UNRWA’s 12 Lebanese camps. That part of 1559 has not been implemented.
After rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel in late December, Resolution 1559 once again gained the United Nation’s attention.
Al-Qaida claimed credit for the attack, reportedly its first on Israel. But some suggested it was carried out by Palestinian terrorists only loosely connected to Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist network.
The next day, Annan called on the Lebanese government “to extend its control over all its territory, to exert its monopoly on the use of force, and to put an end to all such attacks.”
Still, from Israel’s perspective, militancy in UNRWA’s Lebanese camps is far less immediate a threat than militancy in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Some Palestinian supporters argue that Resolution 1208 shouldn’t apply to the West Bank — or, before Israel’s withdrawal last summer, to the Gaza Strip — because Palestinians there are engaged in “legitimate resistance to occupation.”
Israel’s defenders, though, say it’s a clear case of double standards.
“Here the U.N. has adopted clear criteria for how refugee camps are supposed to be maintained, and consistently fails to apply its own law when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Dore Gold, Israel’s former U.N. ambassador and current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “One of the most compelling arguments for demonstrating how Israel is systematically denied the same rights and privileges given to other member states is the story of Resolution 1208.”
Resolution 1208 clearly should apply to UNRWA, said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, known as UNHCR, which handles the world’s other 19.2 million refugees.
“The Israelis may say UNRWA is not protecting the camps well enough, or that we can do a better security job, but I don’t think UNRWA would ever say 1208 doesn’t apply,” Van Genderen Stort said. “If UNRWA people knew there were terrorists firing weapons from the camps, they should remove these people from the camps. But I can’t speak for UNRWA; I’m not on the ground.”
In an interview with JTA, UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd acknowledged that Resolution 1208 officially applies to UNRWA camps, but added that “it requires action to be taken by the authorities where the camps are located, not by the humanitarian agencies.”
“We don’t run camps; that is the responsibility of the sovereign governments and authorities wherever the camps are based,” she said. “It’s like asking, ‘What has Bethesda Hospital done to combat street gangs in Washington, D.C.?’ We do send situation reports to the U.N.’s security department and the Office of the Secretary-General; these are simple, straightforward factual accounts of clashes and other incidents.”
Yet a line needs to be drawn somewhere, Van Genderen Stort said.
“For me, a refugee camp is a place where people in need of protection or assistance can find it,” she said. “A refugee camp shouldn’t be a battleground or a place where criminals are hiding.”
If the intifada resumes and U.N. camps again become terrorist staging grounds, some pro-Israel activists say they’d revive a push for the Security Council to apply Resolution 1208 to UNRWA’s turf.
“I hope the U.N. will use the same standards to ensure the humanitarian nature of refugee camps in the Palestinian territories as they’ve mandated for the rest of the world,” said Felice Gaer, a human-rights expert for the American Jewish Committee. “Exceptionalism for Palestinian refugee camps would be just another way of revealing the U.N. has often used a double standard when it comes to the Middle East conflict.”
If Resolution 1208 were applied, UNRWA would be obliged to report violations to the U.N. secretary-general, who would be obliged to deliver the information to the Security Council. Observers say it’s not inconceivable that, with their actions placed under the microscope, terrorists might be flushed from the camps, cut off from a prime source of recruits and denied a sanctuary from which to plan and launch attacks.
Given the political realities at the United Nations, that may be a pipe dream. But if nothing else, critics say, even the negative publicity might strike a symbolic blow.