It is less than a year since the last report on UNRWA by this author was released. (1)
However, the current critical political/security situation in the Gaza Strip requires a new analysis of UNRWA’s various roles in this specific locale.
In December 2008, after seven years of Hamas and other terrorist groups launching
rockets and mortar shells from Gaza at civilians in the south of Israel, Hamas announced that a six-month temporary ceasefire—during which 538 rockets had been fired (2) at Israel—would not be renewed. In the days that followed, rocket firings averaged 40 per day, with over one million Israeli citizens within range.
On December 27, 2009, Israel began a major military operation — Operation “Cast
Lead”—against Hamas in Gaza. As Hamas operated within densely populated civilian
areas, Israel utilized pinpoint strikes and unprecedented efforts to warn the civilian population; nonetheless Israeli operations were unable to avoid collateral damage. As international critics were quick to blame Israel, often without an accurate assessment of the situation, Israel opened a second, information and public relations, front.
Operation “Cast Lead” ended on January 18, 2009, with a ceasefire unilaterally declared by Israel, followed by a similar ceasefire announcement from Hamas. In the course of the Operation, Hamas was disabled but not defeated; it is still in control in Gaza, and still smuggling in weaponry. From the time the war ended through July 20, 2009, 144 rockets, 79 mortars and 6 Grad Katyushas3 have been fired into Israel.
With some specific exceptions,4 crossings today are open for commercial5 and
humanitarian materials. By March 2009, $4.5 billion, including $900 million from the
US, had been pledged by the international community for humanitarian relief and
reconstruction. There is considerable unease, however, about how to proceed with the
major reconstruction that is required but at the same time prevent money and supplies
from falling into hands of Hamas.
Consideration is being given within the international community to utilizing UNRWA—
which is broadly viewed as a purely humanitarian organization—as a major conduit of
these funds and supplies.
The UNRWA role in Gaza
UNRWA involvement in Gaza is greater than in any of the other regions in which it
operates, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Judea & Samaria (West Bank). (4)
This is a function of demographics: 70% of Gaza’s population, estimated at 1.5 million, consists of persons registered with UNRWA as refugees (6) — thus UNRWA maintains a significant presence in the region. There are 10,000 UNRWA workers in Gaza, who are almost all Palestinian Arab refugees themselves; this means roughly one out of every 150 persons resident in Gaza is an UNRWA employee.
A strong connection between UNRWA in Gaza and Hamas has been previously
documented (7) and evidence that this continues is provided later in this report. Of
particular significance are the recently held elections within the teachers’ sector of the UNRWA union in Gaza,. Candidates associated with the Islamic Bloc, an affiliate of Hamas, won all 11 seats for the executive council8— granting Hamas an enormous influence within the UNRWA schools.
The Islamic Bloc (known in Arabic as Al-Kutla Al-Islamiah) maintains broad programs in these UNRWA schools, beginning as early as junior high school, which promote radical incitement for jihad and opposition to Israel. Its goal is winning the hearts and minds of students so they can be recruited into the Hamas military wing during high school or after graduation.(9)
UNRWA positions during “Cast Lead”
During “Cast Lead,” statements of a political nature and accusations leveled at Israel were repeatedly made by key UNRWA personnel, even though this is highly
inappropriate from individuals who represent an organization the official mandate of
which is purely humanitarian.10 What is more, these statements indicated an anti-Israel bias and frequently a misrepresentation of facts.
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness —in a radio interview11—began talking about
“proportionality” on January 5, 2009, without reflecting what international law actually says12 on this subject:
“This is not proportionate. And what is happening in Sderot [in Israel, where Hamas rockets hit], which is utterly condemnable, I don’t think justifies this level of disproportionality…This degree of killing of innocent women and children and babies is not justified.”
Gunness also took it upon himself to explain Hamas’s rocket attacks:
“But let me also say that the root of the rockets – and people in Gaza tell you this…They will tell you that the occupation is being resisted. That’s the reason for the rockets…”(5)
Gunness is saying here precisely what Hamas says for PR purposes: That it launches
rockets because of “the occupation,” where military occupation of Gaza and the West
Bank is implied. Gunness, who is speaking for an ostensibly humanitarian agency, has no business explaining why Hamas launches rockets in any case. It is wrong from a
humanitarian perspective; from the perspective of international law, it is forbidden.
What Gunness does is to offer a sort of justification, totally disregarding Hamas’s
insistence on the illegitimacy of Israel and its call for Israel’s destruction via jihad. (13)
Perhaps most egregious of all, however, was a statement (14) made by Commission-General of UNRWA, Karen AbuZayd:
“The saddest thing,” she intoned, “is that all of the private sector – every single factory and workshop – was destroyed. Anybody who was working has to start all over.” (15)
To have destroyed “every single factory and workshop,” Israel would have had to carpet bomb all of Gaza, and this was not remotely the case. In fact, Israeli attacks were pinpoint — done to hit specific identified targets. What is more, one must ask how AbuZayd determined such a thing: how could she know that there was not a single
workshop left standing?
This is not a case of expressing an empathy for the residents of Gaza that engenders a tendency to exaggerate. In this instance one is led irrevocably to the conclusion that AbuZayd willfully and maliciously misrepresented.
Instances are also documented in which UNRWA representatives made fallacious
charges against the IDF—or leveled charges before facts were checked—with regard to
damage done to UNRWA buildings or personnel during the conflict.
The incident that received the most press was the one in which it was either claimed or strongly implied that the IDF hit an UNRWA school in Jabaliya that was sheltering
civilians, thereby killing 40 people.16 An IDF investigation, however, indicated that eight to ten Hamas gunmen were killed near the school, which was never hit, after the terrorists had fired mortar shells at IDF troops. (17)
Precipitous charges were made—before facts were confirmed —that the IDF had killed
an UNRWA driver in a convoy. An IDF investigation later found this was not true. (18)
Other charges included the claim made by UNRWA that the IDF had made illegal use of
white phosphorus (19), which was later refuted by the IDF. (20)
Click here for the full report: UNRWA: Its Role in Gaza
1 “UNRWA Overview and Critique.” See:
2 Sderot Media Center
3 IDF spokesman’s office.
4 Items not let in are those that have a “double use.” This includes, broadly, materials that could be utilized
for manufacturing munitions — fertilizer, which can become an explosive and items made of heavy metals, or for building bunkers for the storage of munitions — concrete, etc. Additionally, luxury items such as gourmet foods — that would go primarily to the wealthy elite of Gaza, which is primarily Hamas-associated, are not permitted in.
Source: Guy Inbar, spokesman for the IDF Gaza Administration in telephone interview July 20, 2009.
5 According to the Israel-Palestine Chamber of Commerce, it is expected that by the end of 2009, there will be 2 billion shekels in Israeli exports into Gaza.
6 This is a considerably higher ratio of refugees to general population than is the case in the other areas served by UNRWA.
7 “UNRWA Overview and Critique.” See:
8 Khaled Abu Toameh, “Hamas wins teachers union elections for UN schools in Gaza,” The Jerusalem Post, March 29, 2009.
9 Lt. Col. (res.).Yoni Dahoah Halevy, in direct communication with the author. Arabic-speaking, he provided information based on his research, on request.
10 When founded by UN Resolution 302 (IV), UNRWA was charged with providing “direct relief and work programmes” for the Palestinian refugees.
According to its website (http://www.un.org/unrwa/overview/index.html) UNRWA later “adjusted” its programs, so that now it is” the main provider of basic services - education, health, relief and social services.” UNRWA’s role is exclusively humanitarian.
This contrasts strikingly with the mandate of the UN High Commission for refugees, a second refugee agency founded by the UN, which is instructed to “lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees.” See http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c2.html.
When the two mandates are considered in juxtaposition, it becomes imminently clear that UNRWA’s role is restricted to the non-political. When its representatives step make political declarations, they are stepping beyond the purview and the mandate of the agency they represent.
11 A radio news show for Democracy Now! hosted by Ami Goodman, January 5, 2009.
12 President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, Rosalyn Higgens, has noted, proportionality “cannot be in relation to any specific prior injury — it has to be in relation to the overall legitimate objective of ending the aggression.” That is, Israel was not required to limit attacks in Gaza to
force commensurate to the force of attacks from Kassams that hit southern Israel. It is, rather, legitimate for Israel to use whatever force is necessary to stop the Kassams.
See a full discussion of this issue at:
13 According to the Hamas Covenant:
“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [trust] consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.” (Article 11)
“Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas]… There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.” (Article 13)
“The day that enemies usurp part of Moslem land, Jihad becomes the individual duty of every Moslem. In face of the Jews' usurpation of Palestine, it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised.” (Article 15)
14 In the course of a talk delivered at DePauw University (her alma mater) on March 12, 2009.
16 From Herb Keinon and Tovah Lazaroff, “UNRWA offers political cover to Hamas,” The Jerusalem Post,
February 25, 2009, which cited an interview Guiness gave with “Democracy Now!” radio.
18 Amir Mizroch, “IDF: Army didn’t fire on UN truck,” The Jerusalem Post, January 10,2009.