Tough Sell For U.N. Palestinian Agency

Misconceptions Dog UNRWA in U.S., Especially Among Jews

Grandi Vision: Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, inspects relief operation in Gaza.
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Grandi Vision: Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, inspects relief operation in Gaza.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 02, 2012.
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Before taking over as commissioner-general, Fillipo Grandi served as deputy commissioner for nearly five years. He is acutely aware of the agency’s image problems in the U.S., which was fed by ongoing complaints over the years. Some of critics questioned the need for an agency that serves a growing constituency of second- and third-generation refugees instead of having them absorbed by their host countries. Others point to specific problems that have plagued the organization in the past.

One key issue was the vetting process employed by UNRWA to ensure its employees, who are mostly local Palestinians, are not affiliated with terror organizations such as Hamas.

“What I can come to Congress and say is that we have systems in place that allow us to investigate allegations of violations of U.N. neutrality,” Grandi said, adding that he is pleased with the results. “I think we have dramatically improved our capacity to investigate those claims and to come to conclusions about the validity of those claims.”

The other issue UNRWA has been forced to deal with was the curriculum it uses in its 700 schools. The agency has combed through its textbooks to eliminate anti-Semitic language and narratives preaching hate to Israel. In his recent visit to Washington, Grandi worked on this issue with Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

A lot of the focus on these issues has come from Jewish and pro-Israeli groups that have been watching UNRWA closely. Grandi makes an effort to reach out to Jewish groups and meets regularly with officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups. He argued that while constructive criticism is welcome, other attacks are “gratuitous” especially when critics go public before verifying the facts. One example is the claim that terrorists used UNRWA ambulances, an argument that has since been refuted by the agency.

Israel has shown some understanding to UNRWA’s role in supporting the well-being of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But Grandi argued that its blockade of the Gaza Strip is counterproductive. He said Israel’s decision to ease the blockade following the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010 enabled the agency to begin construction of needed schools and homes for the refugees it serves in the region. But in recent months, he said, Israel has toughened its policy again and is cut back in approvals for transfer of building materials to Gaza. The gap is being filled by contributions from Hamas and by goods being smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt.

“It is bad for the people but in a way even more so, it takes credibility away from our effort,” Grandi said, “That’s a strong message that I pass all the time to our Israeli interlocutors and to Congress and the State Department.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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