The rumor spread quickly on news websites and social media during the third week of the recent Gaza war: Three Israeli soldiers had been killed when, according to the report, they discovered a booby-trapped Hamas tunnel right under a medical facility run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
It could have been a devastating blow for the already beleaguered international agency, had it been true.
But it was the Israel Defense Forces that stepped in to stop the rumor and deny its veracity. An officer on the ground even called up UNRWA headquarters to alert the agency to the claims and to ensure that its officials were prepared to respond.
That might seem counterintuitive at first sight. UNRWA and the IDF have just gone through the toughest stretch in their relationship. During the days of fighting, Israeli forces broke with international rules and bombed UNRWA buildings time and again, killing dozens of civilians. And caches of Hamas weapons were found in some of the U.N. agency’s facilities, which are supposed to be neutral and demilitarized.
But even at this low point, as each side hurled accusations at the other, Israel and the U.N. continued to nurture their decades-long relationship. UNRWA closely coordinated its work with Israel’s military. And Israel still enjoyed the peace and quiet of knowing that an international agency was taking care of the health care, education and employment needs of many of the Palestinians for which Israel would otherwise be held responsible as Gaza’s ruler under international law.
“I’m sure it does surprise people to learn that we have a good relationship with the Israeli army,” UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said in an August 1 phone interview from his office in Jerusalem. An Israeli defense official who was not authorized to speak on record agreed, noting that “more often than not, we get along just fine” with the U.N. agency.
This mutual agreement was particularly striking given its context. Just two days earlier, Gunness had condemned “in the strongest possible terms” Israel’s July 29 bombing of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School, a U.N.-designated shelter, calling the action, which left 15 civilians dead, a “serious violation of international law by Israeli forces.”
Interviewed on Al-Jazeera, Gunness broke down in tears in front of the camera after describing the killing. In an official statement, Gunness noted that children were killed “as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom.” He described the episode as “an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame.”
Later, an IDF official, speaking on Israel’s behalf, told The New York Times that “Hamas people were shooting at” Israeli soldiers from a spot near the school. But Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the IDF’s spokesman, was unable to identify for the Times any location from where the Hamas gunmen had been shooting, and Times reporters could find no sign of any gunfire that took place nearby.
Even before the latest Gaza flare-up, the agency had come under frequent fire from lawmakers and critics in the United States. And it will no doubt face more questions now, due to the perception that its carelessness or animosity toward Israel helped Hamas hide weapons that were used against Israeli civilians and soldiers.
In three separate cases, rockets and ammunition were discovered inside UNRWA facilities, raising concern that Hamas was abusing the U.N. facilities’ protected status. But in each case, it was UNRWA itself that discovered the caches and acted. In the first case, UNRWA alerted local police authorities; in the second it cordoned off the site, and when the third cache of Hamas weapons was found, the U.N. sent munitions experts to Gaza to remove the rockets.
UNRWA claimed that the schools in question had been “mothballed” for summer vacation and that it had no way of blocking Hamas from entering the schoolyard and using it to hide weapons. But this explanation, presented both to Israelis and to American officials and lawmakers, did little to quash criticism of the agency.
On August 6, senators Mark Kirk of Illinois, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Marco Rubio of Florida called on Secretary of State John Kerry to launch “an independent investigation into the troubling actions” of UNRWA.
“Perhaps UNRWA didn’t physically place those rockets in its school, but its ties to Hamas certainly have caused it to have a blind spot when it comes to terrorist activities taking place in its schools and camps, so it’s just as culpable,” said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The administration, however, stood by UNRWA. The agency, said State Department deputy spokeswoman Mary Harf “is operating in a very difficult situation and there weren’t a lot of good options here.”
The United States was also quick to respond to UNRWA’s emergency appeal for funding due to the conflict in Gaza, and has already pledged an extra $15 million in addition to its annual funding of around $250 million.
For UNRWA’s critics, events of July have served as further proof that the group’s work should be limited and that the United States should demonstrate more caution in funding the organization. “The finding of the rockets continues to raise more and more questions,” said Asaf Romirowsky, co-author of “Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief,” a 2013 book voicing a critical standpoint against UNRWA.
Daniel Greenfield of the right-wing website frontpagemag.com called for Washington to defund the agency. “The UNRWA is not an international organization operating in the Middle East,” he charged. “Effectively it’s a local Arab Muslim organization funded and regulated internationally…. In Gaza, Hamas and the UNRWA are the same thing.”
Questions about UNRWA have been raised for years. The group, which is the largest nongovernmental employer in the Palestinian territories, was scrutinized for allegedly failing to vet its personnel properly, thus allowing Palestinians known as terror activists to join the U.N. payroll. It also came under fire for using textbooks that do not include Israel on maps of the region.
Much of this has been addressed, and UNRWA now employs “neutrality officers” charged with making sure the agency is not biased against Israel. It also provides the United States with semiannual reports on this issue.
The larger question, however, has to do with UNRWA’s stated mission. The agency is mandated to deal with Palestinian refugees, which are defined as both those displaced from Israel and the territories and their descendants. This expansive definition irks many in the United States. Senator Kirk has [launched legislation] aimed at limiting the definition of Palestinian refugees to only those personally displaced during the 1948 conflict that established Israel. This redefinition could shrink those eligible for UNRWA services from the current registry of 5 million people to less than 70,000.
But Kirk’s bill has attracted little support. Only a handful of the agency’s harshest critics are calling for just pulling the plug on the aid the U.N. agency provides.
Romirowsky, for one, believes that the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the more moderate Fatah Palestinian faction, should take over many of UNRWA’s responsibilities. “UNRWA has become a shadow government of the Palestinian Authority,” he said.
But the P.A. has turned down such suggestions in the past, citing its lack of capacity and infrastructure, and the United States has supported its position.
Congress has made repeated demands for more accountability and transparency from UNRWA and has sometimes resisted annual funding requests for the agency from both Democratic and Republican administrations. But lawmakers do not envision a Middle East without UNRWA in the near future.
Nor does Israel.
At a recent seminar on the agency’s role, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, declared, “I reaffirm Israel’s support for UNRWA’s humanitarian mission — and I emphasize humanitarian mission.” At the same time, he stressed Israel’s displeasure with UNRWA’s existence, which he said fuels “false promises and gives grievance to dangerous myths.”
It’s a somewhat contradictory stance. But on the ground it is clear that the practical need for UNRWA trumps other long-term considerations Israel may have. Since hostilities broke out, coordination between the IDF and the agency, officials on both sides say, has grown closer, as Israeli forces helped facilitate the safe passage of refugees and supply convoys by UNRWA despite the surrounding mayhem.
“UNRWA is the only safety net for Palestinians in Gaza. Without it there would be total chaos,” said Bill Corcoran, president and CEO of ANERA, a U.S.-based humanitarian organization that provides aid to Palestinians in the Middle East. “Until there is a political solution, we cannot abolish the only system that provides these services.”
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.