United Nations Relief and Works Agency: Beyond the Headlines

by | Nov 3, 2004 | POLITICS, United Nations

The headlines are shocking enough: “Child Shot in UNRWA School Dies.” “Israeli Gunfire Hits 11-Year-Old Girl …in an UNRWA School.” So, too, are the accompanying statistics: “On June 1, two 10-year-old boys in UNRWA’s Al-Umariye Elementary Boys’ School in Rafah were hit by a bullet and ricochets from an Israeli tank…” and “In March 2003, […]

The headlines are shocking enough: “Child Shot in UNRWA School Dies.” “Israeli Gunfire Hits 11-Year-Old Girl …in an UNRWA School.”

So, too, are the accompanying statistics: “On June 1, two 10-year-old boys in UNRWA’s Al-Umariye Elementary Boys’ School in Rafah were hit by a bullet and ricochets from an Israeli tank…” and “In March 2003, 12-year-old Hoda Darwish was sitting at her desk when she was hit in the head by a bullet fired from an Israeli observation post…”

To read this, it would seem the Israelis are purposely targeting children.

But behind the condemning October press releases from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees is a deeper story, one that does not absolve Israel of its role in killing innocents, but one that does, in addition, challenge the perspectives of those who still hold fast to the notion that the United Nations is a capable player in the commonly-held quest for world peace.

UNRWA was established in 1949 as a means of providing education and relief services to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The agency is staffed primarily by Palestinians, a thorn in the side of many who perceive U.N. policy as biased against Israel in the first place, with nearly half stationed in war-torn Gaza and the West Bank, the General Accounting Office reports. So it is against this backdrop that UNRWA largely attempts to school and educate Palestinian children.

The obvious glitch with this scenario is that no matter how honest the intent of UNRWA is to remain aloof from Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to focus solely on the education of the youth, the reality is that its school buildings are located in the midst of a known battle zone that carries, by extension, known risks of injury or death from gunfire, strayed or otherwise. The other reality is that UNRWA isn’t exactly the shining example of moral righteousness it purports to be, in terms of remaining a clear source of simple refugee service among a sea of religiously- and politically-charged Israeli and Palestinian armed forces, anyway. In fact, UNRWA has refuted accusations for years that it harbors terrorist activities, instills hatred of Israel in Palestinian schoolchildren and spends international funds absent proper oversight, leading to further suspicions about its true agenda.

The GAO conducted a survey that addresses many of these allegations against UNRWA; in November 2003, the investigative arm for Congress found that the group lacked the ability to access staff arrest records, prevent armed incursions from terrorists into its facilities, and determine if its aid recipients are linked to terrorist groups. More specifically, GAO found, in its Dept. of State and UNRWA Actions to Implement Section 301(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 report, “a Hamas leader spoke at an outside group’s event in an UNRWA facility without UNRWA knowledge” in 2001 and that while UNRWA denied “re-housing assistance to six families whose houses were apparently destroyed during bomb-making activities, it did not remove the families from its registry of eligible refugees or deny them other assistance.”

Moreover, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish international civil rights organization, published a startling admission on Oct. 4 from UNRWA director Peter Hansen: Hamas members were among his employees.

“I don’t see that as a crime,” Hansen said of UNRWA’s hiring of Hamas members. “Hamas is a political organization and not every one of its members is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”

Meanwhile, the United States, according to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 2004 to 2005, has funded UNRWA to the tune of $2.5 billion since 1950, with $110 million in 2002 alone. The current legislation does seem to include some caveats in regards to future appropriations for UNRWA, with a resolution expressing “outrage over credible reports that UNRWA facilities have been used for terrorist training and bases for terrorist operations,” and that “strongly urges the Secretary of State to make UNRWA reforms a priority at the United Nations.” The GAO is also called to conduct an audit of UNRWA to ensure taxpayer dollars are not funding, either directly or indirectly, terrorist activities.

That any doubt can still exist of the United Nations’ ability to realize its original, founding goals of world peace is remarkable, given these latest findings about UNRWA. But that the United States would actually fund such ineptness, and then in the face of truth issue a wrist-slapping “strong urge” rather than an unwavering call to immediately halt appropriations, is perhaps the most striking of all.

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Cheryl K. Chumley is a columnist who writes for <a href="http://www.abetterearth.org/">www.abetterearth.org</a>.


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