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Tension Rocketing Up Between Israel and U.N. Refugee Agency

November 10, 2004
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A month after a U.N. official suggested that some Hamas members are on his payroll, the issue is still reverberating in Washington. JTA has learned that some two dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives so far have signed a letter calling on Secretary of State Colin Powell “to suspend immediately all U.S. assistance to UNRWA until you can confirm that the agency no longer employs members of Hamas or other terrorist organizations and to work toward a new UNRWA leadership that is verifiably committed to countering terrorism and incitement to violence.”

The letter, which refers to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, an agency serving 59 Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East, is to be delivered to Powell this week or next.

UNRWA chief Peter Hansen drew Israeli ire on Oct. 3 when he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that there were Hamas members on the agency’s payroll.

“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 Danish official said.

Israeli media long have reported that the UNRWA teacher’s union, for example, is dominated by members of Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction and the murder of Jews.

The United States and Canada — which together contribute 40 percent of UNRWA’s budget — brand Hamas a terrorist group. The U.S. government is bound by law to ensure that no U.S. taxpayer dollars go to groups involved with terrorist activity.

Critics say the controversy is the latest example of Hansen turning a blind eye to terrorism and demonstrating anti-Israel bias.

The greater damage, they say, is to the effort by Hansen’s boss, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to work with Israel as an “honest broker” in any peace negotiations. Together with the United States, European Union and Russia, the United Nations forms part of the diplomatic “Quartet” that devised the “road map” peace plan.

An UNRWA spokesman later sought to clarify to JTA that Hansen meant to say “Hamas sympathizers.” Hansen contended in a Nov. 3 interview with JTA that he meant “Hamas people.”

Hansen works in Gaza together with 12,000 UNRWA employees, nearly all of whom reportedly are Palestinian refugees.

“Don’t judge people by what you think they may or may not believe; judge them by what they do, in their actions and in their behavior,” Hansen told JTA in an interview at U.N. headquarters in New York. “And there we get back to the very strict behavior code we have in the agency for what staff members are to do and not to do in their behavior.”

All U.N. employees, including its leaders, are required to be neutral and impartial. But Hansen’s explanation has not swayed signatories of the Powell letter.

“The U.N. has a track record of anti-Israeli bias, and the continued employment of a man like Hansen is no exception,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). “As long as Hansen is Annan’s point man, Annan will have zero credibility in the peace process. You can’t knowingly include members of Hamas on your payroll and reasonably expect Israelis to treat you as an honest broker.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) echoed the sentiment.

“I think Kofi Annan, unless he takes a very strong stand on any organization within the U.N. that supports terrorists, is certainly diminished as a leader who can bring about an end to terrorism or have credibility to promote Middle East peace,” Waxman said.

A U.N. spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, rejected the charge.

“The U.N. expects all its employees to check their political affiliations or feelings at the door. When they come to the U.N., they are expected to come to work in a way that reflects the U.N. charter,” Dujarric told JTA.

Israel has pushed to reform UNRWA and moderate its public statements, but not to dismantle its operations. As the formal “occupying power” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel would be legally obligated to care for the refugee and civilian population if UNRWA weren’t there.

The congressional letter comes amid a dispute between Israel and Hansen about his annual report to the world body, which some pro-Israel advocates have assailed as one-sided.

It’s not the first time Hansen has riled Israel’s supporters or that there have been threats to suspend UNRWA’s funding.

President Reagan cut off UNRWA’s funding for a spell in 1982 after weapons reportedly were found in an UNRWA camp in Lebanon.

Two years ago, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and others accused UNRWA of being “complicit” as its camps in Gaza allegedly were turned into terrorist bases.

That came on the heels of the April 2002 battle in Jenin, the culmination of several months in which Palestinian terrorism during the intifada reached its apogee.

“I had hoped that the horror stories of Jenin were exaggerated,” Hansen was quoted as saying on April 18, 2002, as he surveyed the destruction in the refugee camp. “Jenin camp residents lived through a human catastrophe that has few parallels in recent history.”

Hansen suggested that Israel’s attack in Jenin had killed “hundreds” of Palestinians. However, a U.N. report later rejected Palestinian propaganda of a massacre, corroborating Israeli reports that about 50 Palestinians were killed, half of them combatants. Israel lost 23 soldiers in the battle.

The latest dust-up began a month ago with Israel’s claim — which it later retracted — that it had video footage of an UNRWA staffer loading a Kassam rocket into the back of an UNRWA ambulance.

Hansen demanded a public apology from Israel, and UNRWA published an Oct. 4 letter sent to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

“Given the technical means and military expertise at the disposal of the IDF,” Hansen wrote, “it is inconceivable that the IDF could have made this egregiously erroneous allegation in good faith.

“It is appalling that, with the serious conflict now raging in the Northern Gaza Strip,” he continued, “the Government of Israel would put out such deliberately inciteful, false and malicious propaganda, encouraging IDF soldiers on the ground” or in the air “to think that UNRWA ambulances and other humanitarian vehicles are transporting terrorists and weapons.”

Hansen also hinted that charges against UNRWA provide cover for Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas, and subsequent casualties.

The United Nations investigated, agreed with Hansen’s early assessment and accepted Israel’s retraction. But the United Nations won’t release its report on the incident, leading some critics to speculate that the conclusions may not be as clear-cut as portrayed.

Nevertheless, in an Oct. 27 statement about the report, Annan reiterated his “full confidence in the integrity and impartiality of Mr. Peter Hansen.”

Just four days later, on Nov. 1, Hansen spoke to a U.N. Correspondents Association breakfast. He suggested there was a smear campaign against him, and demanded an apology from Israel.

Later that day, Hansen presented his annual report of UNRWA activities to the U.N.’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee. In a nine-page statement, he detailed Israeli actions and Palestinian hardships.

There was only a single reference to Palestinian-initiated violence: The largest Israeli incursion yet in the Gaza Strip followed Palestinian rocket attacks, some of which killed a number of Israeli civilians, including three children, he noted.

But the mention came with a footnote: “These rocket attacks came after earlier Israeli targeted killings of Palestinian militants, which were themselves attributed to earlier Palestinian actions, etc. etc “

A few sentences later, Hansen wrote, “The dead include nine UNRWA pupils and two teachers. In the last two years, three young girls have been killed by IDF gunfire while actually sitting at their school desks. I doubt anyone would argue that such indiscriminate and disproportionate destruction, and disregard for life, do not constitute grave violations of humanitarian law.”

Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights, said Hansen distorted reality by leaving out context.

“If you were a man from Mars and you were to read his report, you would think that one fine day, the Israeli army woke up and decided to shoot Palestinian schoolchildren,” Gaer said. “There is one reference to Kassam rockets, which is totally bland. This misrepresentation of the situation is both inappropriate for a senior U.N. officer and it’s counterproductive.”

Two days after his U.N. presentation, in his interview with JTA, Hansen called Israeli charges against UNRWA “beyond the pale” and “way over the top.”

Israel since has handed over a second videotape to the United Nations and said it has 29 new charges.

Israel has convicted a handful of UNRWA staffers over the years for terror-related activities but has refused to reveal evidence, citing national security.

Some Israeli officials criticize this position, saying it undercuts the credibility of Israeli claims. UNRWA officials, for their part, express skepticism about Israeli intelligence and justice.

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