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Israel Blasts Agency Overseeing Palestinian Refugees

Despite an embarrassing retreat from allegations that United Nations ambulances were being used to transport Palestinian missiles, Israel is stepping up its efforts to discredit the U.N. agency that oversees Palestinian refugees.

Israel announced that soon it would file indictments against 13 Palestinians employed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It blasted the agency’s leader over recent controversial comments. The condemnations came as the Israeli military backtracked from its initial claims that footage shot by an unmanned army drone showed Palestinian militants using a U.N. ambulance in Gaza to load a short-range Qassam rocket. The U.N. agency said that the object in question was a stretcher.

After heavily publicizing the footage, the Israeli military decided to pull it off its Web site Tuesday. That same day, a top Israeli official told reporters at a specially convened press conference that it was possible the initial assessment was erroneous.

“I suggest we don’t deal with the object but rather with the context,” said Brigadier-General Yisrael Ziv, head of the Israeli army’s operations directorate.

Ziv claimed that “U.N. vans are providing cover for combatants planting bombs.” He announced the future indictments, which involve Palestinians already in detention.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan dispatched a four-man team to probe the Israeli allegations.

A U.N. official told the Forward that the U.N. agency had not received any official notification about these indictments, adding that Israel never had provided the agency with information about the charges against its detained employees, who number 34 so far this year and totaled 64 last year.

“Most of these have been on administrative detention for many years without charges or trial, and I find it ironic that all of a sudden [the Israelis] are now coming up with indictments against 13 of these and going with that to the media and not to their employer who has been asking for this from the moment of their arrest,” the U.N. official said.

Israel’s goal, the official said, was to divert attention from its current military campaign in Gaza. “The media coverage is now more about this than about the 70 or so Palestinians killed so far, more than half civilians, or the hundreds of wounded and other damage to property and homes,” he said. “Israel has little tolerance for criticism, and this is one way to try to keep the U.N. silent. We do what we ‘need to do in Gaza,’ and you dare not criticize our actions or ‘else.’”

Figures provided by Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups put the proportion of civilians killed during the Gaza incursion at about 40%.

Anat Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli mission to the U.N., said Jerusalem was not trying to divert attention, but was drawing attention to an issue that required swift international action.

Israeli officials pounced on controversial statements by the commissioner-general of the U.N. relief agency, Peter Hansen. Speaking to Canadian television following the initial Israeli charges about the ambulance, Hansen said members of Hamas were “on the UNRWA payroll” and that he did not “see that as a crime.” Hansen said the agency requires its staff to remain neutral.

Still, his comments drew a wave of criticism from Israel and its supporters. On Monday, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, wrote Annan and told the Security Council that the idea that individuals with clear links to Hamas may be “on the UNRWA payroll” was totally unacceptable and should be investigated.

On Tuesday, New York Democrat Rep. Anthony Weiner and 13 congressmen sent a letter to Annan, calling for Hansen’s immediate dismissal. Hansen’s three-year term is up at the end of February 2005.

Friedman, the Israeli spokeswoman at the U.N., said Jerusalem was not calling for Hansen’s dismissal. But, according to a report in Ha’aretz, in media interviews Gillerman demanded Hansen’s dismissal.

The decision to reappoint Hansen or to name a successor will be made by Annan in consultation with the members of an advisory commission comprising America, England, France, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Japan, as well as an observer from the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A spokesman for the American mission to the U.N. said that while it was too early to discuss future appointments, Washington would ensure that the person appointed to head the U.N. relief agency is seen as balanced by all sides.

The U.N. official said he would not be surprised if the latest spat affected Hansen’s chances.

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