WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned a review of U.N. practices for relocating weapons found on its premises following reports that rockets found in an UNRWA school were returned to Hamas.
“The Secretary-General is alarmed to hear that rockets were placed in an UNRWA school in Gaza and that subsequently these have gone missing,” Ban said in a statement Wednesday, a day after the second such cache of weapons was uncovered in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the principal group assisting Palestinian refugees.
“The Secretary-General has asked for a full review of such incidents and how the U.N. responds in such instances,” the statement said. “The United Nations is taking concerted action to increase its vigilance in preventing such episodes from happening again.”
Ban, the statement said, directed two security departments to “to immediately develop and implement an effective security plan for the safe and secure handling of any weapons discovered in U.N. premises.”
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, accused UNRWA of returning the missiles to Hamas when he met Wednesday with Ban, who is in the region trying to bring about a cease-fire, The Jerusalem Post reported.
Christopher McGrath, an UNRWA spokesman, told JTA in an email that UNRWA’s practice was to refer unexploded ordnance to “local authorities.” He said the local authorities in this case did not answer to Hamas but to the government of unaffiliated technocrats in Ramallah.
“They pledged to pass a message to all parties not to violate UNRWA neutrality,” he said of the authorities.
Another UNRWA spokesman said the missing weapons to which Ban referred was the second batch, discovered Tuesday. UNRWA evacuated the school, Christopher Gunness told JTA, and its staff sought appropriate personnel to remove the weapons only to discover the next day when they returned that the weapons had been removed.
“We evacuated the premises and placed a guard at the gate,” Gunness told JTA in an email from Jerusalem, where he is based.
“At the same time, we began intensive consultations to find an international actor to help survey the weapons so the extent of the problem could be ascertained and a safe disposal plan developed,” he said. “There were 1,500 displaced civilians in schools on either side of the installation and their safety was paramount. UNRWA staff did not re-enter the installation until the following day when displaced people from Beit Hanoun forced open the school seeking refuge. At that point our staff went to secure the area in which the weapons had been discovered the previous day and found they had been removed.”
Gunness noted that UNRWA staff have come under fire during the war. Three teachers, all women, were killed Thursday by Israeli fire — two in their residences, where family members also were killed, and one returning home from an UNRWA emergency shelter.
“Our hearts go out to their surviving family members,” he said.