As violence escalates in Israel and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, advocates for the Jewish state are opening up a new front in their battle to highlight incitement as a prime cause behind Palestinian attacks.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based organization devoted to monitoring the performance of the United Nations, has cited the U.N. agency caring for Palestinian refugees for allegedly tolerating incitement to violence against Israel on the private Facebook pages of its employees.
Some of the examples, detailed in U.N. Watch’s October 16 report on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East include clear calls for violent attacks against Israelis. Others glorify terrorists who stabbed Israeli Jews in the recent wave of violence.
“Stab Zionist dogs,” called Hani al Ramahi, one of those cited in the report whose Facebook profile indicates he is an UNRWA employee.
Chris McGrath, UNWRA’s Washington Liaison Officer said on October 20 that his agency was aware of U.N. Watch’s report and was taking steps to respond to and investigate its allegations.
“Already, working closely with Facebook’s legal team, we have brought about the removal of more than 90 imposter or unauthorized Facebook pages,” he said in a statement. “In some cases, we have determined the alleged ‘UNRWA staff’ are not in fact UNRWA employees or are no longer UNRWA employees. However, and very regrettably, in a number of cases so far we have found staff Facebook postings to be in violation of our social media rules.”
McGrath said the postings in question had been removed and that the staff members who posted them had been sanctioned with penalties, “including suspension and loss of pay.” Other remaining allegations are “under assessment.”
“We condemn and will not tolerate anti-Semitism or racism in any form,” McGrath said in his statement.
The agency, which provides education, welfare, and medical services to Palestinian refugees, is the largest employer of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It also serves Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon Syria and Jordan.
UNRWA has long been in the crosshairs of pro-Israel organizations that complain about anti-Israel bias in its textbooks and argue that the agency’s lax vetting policies allow terrorists to get on the U.N’s payroll. The issue reached a boiling point during Israel’s 2014 summer military campaign in Gaza, when ammunition was found in an UNRWA compound there. Israel also bombed UNWRA facilities during the campaign, claiming that rockets were being fired into Israel from them.
The claims in the October 16 report, which are being examined by the U.N., are already leading to an increase in pressure in the United States to scrutinize UNRWA and to condition America’s funding of the agency. Republican Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee stated on Monday that he will look into UNRWA as part of a hearing he has scheduled focused on Palestinian incitement.
Faran Haq, a spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on October 18 that “Of course we take it very seriously that all UN employees must be equally responsible in the things we say and do,” said deputy spokesman .
The most damning part of the U.N. Watch report relates to Mohammed Assaf, an official UNRWA youth ambassador who has been raising money for the agency across the world. A kind of UNWRA poster child, Assaf, a Palestinian teenager from the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza, studied in a school run by the agency and went on to became a Middle East music superstar after winning the popular TV show “Arab Idol.”
In recent weeks, Assaf used his social media postings to praise as martyrs terrorists who carried out attacks against Israelis. He also released a new music video, in which he calls to fight back “until you defeat the aggressor” and sings that “there is no perseverance,” comparable to that shown by the Palestinian who carried out attacks against Israelis earlier this month in Jerusalem and Afula.
U.N. Watch lists another nine instances in which individuals, who identified themselves in their Facebook profile as UNRWA employees, expressed support for attacks against Israelis. Mahmoud Abu Zakari, whose profile said he was a social worker employed by the agency, changed his profile picture to an image of a knife wielding hooded teen. Another, Um Karam, who identified himself as an UNRWA teacher, posted a video of an Islamic preacher calling to murder Jews. Abu Wadih Duheir, who said he was also a teacher employed by the agency, posted a video celebrating terror attacks aimed at Israelis.
U.N. Watch has called on UNRWA to fire all 10 employees “for using the name of UNRWA” on an account that promotes violence. “UNRWA’s strategy of impunity, denial and deflection only enables more incitement and violence,” said U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer in a statement. “It’s time to put an end to the pattern and practice of UNRWA school principals, teachers and staff members posting anti-Semitic and terror-inciting images, indicating a pathology of racism and violence within UNRWA.”
This is the second time in recent months that UNRWA workers have been found to carry hateful messages against Israelis and Jews on their Facebook accounts. After U.N. Watch’s previous report issued September 1, UNRWA promised it would take “disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal” if it finds that staff members violated the organization’s neutrality. As of now, there has been no indication any action has been taken.
U.N. Watch believes its best chance of leaning on UNRWA is through its major donors, primarily the United States which provided the agency more than $400 million last year, making it the largest international donor. The European Union gave UNRWA $139 million. The watchdog organization urged its supporters to reach out to Secretary of State John Kerry with a call to force the removal of the inciting posts. “I urge you to put an end to the hijacking of humanitarianism by hate,” the petition reads.
The Obama administration, as well as the government of Israel, largely view UNRWA as a crucial partner in maintaining stability in the region thanks to the social services it provides to Palestinian refugees. Congress, on the other hand, has been more willing to take on the agency. In the past, efforts to block funding to UNRWA were derailed, mainly due to pushback from the administration and a lack of support for such moves from Israel. But Congress, in hearings and legislation, has succeeded in raising awareness of perceived anti-Israel bias in the agency and in increasing pressure for more accountability.
UNRWA is not the only United Nations agency in hot water following the surge in violence in Israel. UNESCO, the U.N’s cultural agency, is expected to vote on Wednesday on a resolution declaring that the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy site, is part of the adjacent Al Aqsa mosque. The resolution, proposed by six Arab states, ignited harsh responses from the Israeli government and from Jewish organizations. “We must not watch in silence as this key UN body denies the Jewish people’s connection to our holiest site — and, in doing so, shamelessly rewrites history and sets back the cause of peace,” said the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, in an email calling supporters to sign a petition against the resolution.
This article has been updated to reflect a statement issued by UNWRA October 20.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.