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Unmasking Unrwa a Veteran of Other Refugee Crises, Relief Director Faces Her Greatest Test

March 20, 2006
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The honeymoon was sure to end sooner or later. Since Karen Koning AbuZayd took the reins nearly a year ago of the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, Israeli officials had praised her for steering clear of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the smoother sailing was always a bit misleading. AbuZayd’s controversial predecessor, Peter Hansen, had served during the intifada, when Israel cracked down on terrorists in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, often via incursions into UNRWA refugee camps that were incubators of militancy.

During the relative calm since AbuZayd took over UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Israel had conducted no large-scale operations — and so had not come in for UNRWA criticism.

That has changed in recent weeks, with an Israel Defense Force offensive into the Balata refugee camp in Nablus and elsewhere to hunt down wanted men.

With that, AbuZayd has made herself heard — in UNRWA’s familiar, imbalanced fashion.

“Israeli military operations have continued in the OPT, including daily shelling (in response to Kassam rocket attacks), targeted assassinations in Gaza and new incursions in the West Bank,” AbuZayd told diplomats of the 21-nation UNRWA Advisory Commission on Feb. 27 in Amman. “In the latest IDF operation in Balata camp, some of our installations were commandeered by the IDF, despite all efforts made by my West Bank colleagues and myself at preventing these unacceptable and illegal intrusions.”

Not only did AbuZayd adopt the language of the Palestinian narrative — the OPT refers to the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” — but her passive wording skipped over the fact that the Kassams were launched by Palestinians. And that was the lone reference to Palestinian violence; in contrast, several paragraphs focus on Israeli actions, with no mention of their motives.

That sort of one-sidedness was familiar from the days of the intifada. While supplying vital relief and shelter for the neediest of its 1.6 million clients in Gaza and the West Bank — plus its traditional educational, health, social services and micro-finance programs — UNRWA made repeated statements that skimmed over, if not outright ignored, Palestinian contributions to the “cycle of violence.”

That lack of context and short shrift to Israeli security concerns — by a U.N. agency that presents itself as neutral to the international media, human-rights groups and foreign diplomats — helped create a popular impression of disproportionate, gratuitous Israeli violence. If the situation grows more violent, AbuZayd’s words will surely be watched closely by supporters of Israel.

In a quarter-century of refugee work, AbuZayd, 64, has helped the displaced and dispossessed of Uganda, Chad, Ethiopia, Namibia and Liberia. After the fall of apartheid, she directed U.N. efforts to repatriate South Africans. During the Bosnian war, she headed the U.N. refugee agency in Sarajevo.

With Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer, the Ohio native now faces her toughest challenge — overseeing the historic transition from occupation to sovereignty and, potentially, an end to the Palestinians’ perpetual refugee status.

UNRWA has unveiled a vast reconstruction and recovery plan that AbuZayd says will cost “several hundred million dollars over several years” to rejuvenate the Palestinian camps, rebuild damaged homes, renovate infrastructure and create thousands of new jobs. It would be the largest economic revival project in Gaza in a decade, since the early, hopeful years of the Oslo peace process.

Such investment is key to reviving hope for a people who feel abandoned by the world, AbuZayd told JTA by phone from UNRWA headquarters in Gaza.

“What we’re trying to do is to make sure that there are some signs of new life and assistance, that the international community is supporting them and the disengagement,” said the former professor of political science and Islamic studies.

If Palestinians see tangible benefits of steps toward peace with Israel — freedom of movement, a decent-paying job, food on the table — they’ll be less likely to take up arms, she said, or support those who do.

Of course, that also was the theory behind the Oslo peace process, and it failed to temper militancy. Moreover, critics may dispute the premise that Palestinian terrorism is driven by despair, which ignores the influence of incitement in mosques, schools and official Palestinian Authority media.

Nevertheless, that is AbuZayd’s philosophy — and, as the top administrator and fund-raiser for an organization responsible for nearly 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, she commands a unique pulpit.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as much a battle for public opinion as a struggle on the ground, the debate often becomes a contest of conflicting narratives. In this debate, supporters of Israel say, an agency that is bound by the U.N. Charter to be “neutral” and “impartial” has been anything but.

AbuZayd took over UNRWA last April, after four and a half years of intifada violence in which Hansen had become such a vocal defender of the Palestinians that in October 2004, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, labeled him a “hater of Israel.”

Israel’s defenders accused Hansen, a Dane on the job for nine years, of turning a blind eye as UNRWA camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank became sanctuaries for extremists and a primary source of terrorist attacks against Israel.

“Hansen was criticized for offering exculpatory arguments — cover for the killings and suicide bombings,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “Some believe this attempt to explain the reasons for terrorism emboldens Palestinian extremists and terrorists to launch more attacks.”

Hansen was unrepentant about his advocacy, yet he reportedly became too much of a liability for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was under pressure from the United States for various other controversies. The United States is UNRWA’s largest donor — typically providing about 30 percent of its annual budget — and was fiercely critical of Hansen’s bias.

It was against that background that AbuZayd, a mother of two who is married to a Sudanese professor, stepped into the spotlight.

Her public comments reveal a willingness to venture into sensitive topics. In an August 2002 issue of the Jerusalem Report, AbuZayd, at the time Hansen’s deputy, spoke candidly about the militarization of UNRWA camps, acknowledging the risk to staff and civilian safety.

However, in an October 2004 chat with readers of, she was harshly critical of Israel, never mentioning the Palestinian contribution to the “cycle of violence.”

“Israel is a difficult partner, thanks to their heavy security concerns, which are used as an excuse for all the obstacles put in our (and the Palestinians’) way,” she wrote. “Taking the offensive against us is a way of diverting attention from our criticism.”

She also seemed to endorse an explicitly political agenda.

“The international community is failing” the Palestinians, AbuZayd wrote, “and groups of nations could exert more pressure on Israel.”

Yet at times she has angered the Palestinians as well.

Speaking to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv last summer about the Palestinian demand for a refugee “right of return” to their former homes in what became Israel, AbuZayd acknowledged that no solution could be imposed on Israel, and suggested that the demand is more symbolic than practical.

Considering that most Israelis view the “right of return” as demographic suicide, AbuZayd’s comments appeared to repudiate maximalist Palestinian demands.

“We demand that Mrs. AbuZayd stop intervening in this issue, because her role is to serve Palestinian refugees and not cancel their political right to return to the land from which they were displaced,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.

Nevertheless, Ronny Leshno Yaar, deputy director general for U.N. affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel would prefer that she avoid such topics altogether.

“We expect UNRWA to not get involved with Palestinian-Israeli politics, but to stick to responding to humanitarian needs of the refugees,” he said.

To her good fortune, AbuZayd has taken over during the quietest period in the past six years. This has been due to a “truce” largely observed by the biggest Palestinian terrorist groups in 2005, the removal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and the continued construction of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, which has drastically reduced terrorist attacks and concomitant Israeli reprisals.

Any tensions between UNRWA and Israel “have always been during especially bloody periods of the conflict — during an incursion or when a large number of people have been killed or homes demolished,” AbuZayd told JTA. “The current period of relative calm — when there have been no homes demolished or children shot in UNRWA classrooms — clearly creates fewer points of friction.”

The agency still is willing to criticize Israel, as it did in an annual report delivered to the United Nations in November that singled out the humanitarian impact of Israel’s security fence. Yet there also has been an internal calculation made, according to a U.N. official in New York, who asked not to be identified.

“A decision was made to be more careful about what UNRWA addresses, and how it addresses them,” the official told JTA. “It shows to what extent UNRWA has been aware of the political sensitivities of the situation and Israel’s position.”

Still, as presaged by AbuZayd’s reaction to the recent Balata incursion, that could all change if the intifada resumes under a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

“There’s a straightforward formula here: As long as UNRWA has access to the population it wants to get to, it can operate in an environment even where there’s armed conflict,” the U.N. official said. “But if UNRWA can’t deliver emergency assistance and life-sustaining water, food and medical care, the agency feels duty-bound to bring that to the attention of the Israeli authorities and others in the international community.”

If so, Israel hopes that under AbuZayd it will be done impartially — and in context.

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