OP-ED: UNRWA far from neutral

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (JTA) — Criticism is mounting that a U.N. probe of Israel’s attacks on its own facilities in Gaza is too limited and should be widened to investigate attacks on both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The U.N. Board of Inquiry findings are expected any day, and pro-Israel advocates expect no surprises — especially since the key witness is UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

Amnesty International, which pro-Israel advocates describe as no friend of the Jewish state, criticized the narrow mandate last month.

“What is needed is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law — by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict,” said Irene Khan, the secretary general for Amnesty.

In mid-March, 16 respected war-crimes investigators and judges sent an open letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon further chastising the world body — and added that a broadened investigation should recommend for prosecution “those responsible for gross violations.”

“It is not only the U.N. personnel that deserve truth and justice, but Palestinians and Israelis themselves,” wrote one signatory, William Schabas, a former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Even if the investigation were expanded, Israel’s defenders would balk at the main witness: UNRWA.

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists have long recognized that the Middle East conflict is not just fought on the ground but in a court of public opinion that shapes how millions view the conflict.

Beyond the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives, journalists, diplomats and human-rights watchdogs typically seek out a “neutral” third party to act as tie-breaker: “Who’s right, who’s wrong?”

Who better to ask, they figure, than the United Nations: Its lofty charter calls for neutrality and impartiality in preserving peace and security, and comforting the globe’s greatest victims. Yet time and again, UNRWA has acted far from neutral and nonpartisan.

As JTA detailed in its 2006 series “Unmasking UNRWA,” the agency routinely oversteps its mandate, plays politics and blames Israel for the suffering while eliding Palestinian violence that helps spur it.

Even an ex-UNRWA official has stepped forward to condemn its politicization.

In January, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a report by James Lindsay, UNRWA’s former general counsel, in which he wrote that the agency should “halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues.”

During the recent war in Gaza, though, UNRWA issued context-free criticism of Israel, accusing the Jewish state of “violations of international law,” but was near silent about Palestinian rocket launchers who fired from among schools, playgrounds, mosques and homes — using UNRWA’s own clients as human shields.

As the Fourth Geneva Convention makes clear, “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”

The United Nations has its own pronouncement on such matters, after then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented a decade ago how fighters exploit the safe haven of refugee camps, spawning more violence. (Gaza has eight such camps, home to one-third of the entire Palestinian population there.)

The result was U.N. Resolution 1208, on “separation of armed elements from refugee populations,” a document that carries the weight of international law and is to be applied “universally.”

A review of UNRWA’s 60-year history helps explain why it keeps quiet on such statutes.

The United Nations established UNRWA in 1949 to care for 914,000 documented “Palestine refugees.” In the early 1950s, though, the world body expanded the refugee definition to include descendants, something never done for UNHCR, the U.N. agency that handles all the world’s other refugees.

Three generations later, UNRWA’s rolls number 4.6 million — and growing. (In 2002, the agency cited 3.8 million; in 2006, it counted 4.3 million.)

While UNRWA today provides critical health, education, food and other welfare to a largely impoverished people, less known is the built-in non-neutrality. As its own Web site states, of 24,000-plus staff, “more than 99 percent are locally recruited Palestinians, almost all of them Palestine refugees.”

UNRWA staffers must sign a code of conduct, a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy to steer clear of activities that “may adversely affect” their “integrity, independence and impartiality.” Yet ample evidence suggests many either sympathize with Hamas or are leery of speaking out against the extremists in their midst.

Still, UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd went before the Security Council on Jan. 27 and disregarded Palestinian rockets that emanated from her camps or from among civilians. Instead, she described “what appears to have been systematic destruction to schools, universities, residential buildings, factories, shops and farms,” and a Palestinian “rage against attackers for often failing to distinguish between military targets and civilians.”

Just last week, in a hint of what the U.N. Board of Inquiry itself may conclude, AbuZayd told a U.N. “Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People” in Cairo that Israel had damaged 57 UNRWA facilities, including “37 schools and various other premises.”

Yet again, in a speech of 2,000 words, nothing was mentioned about Palestinian rocket launchers.

(Michael J. Jordan will be reporting for JTA at the Durban II conference next month in Geneva.)

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