In Jerusalem last week, the United Nations announced the launch of its “2009 Consolidated Appeal,” the UN’s initiative to raise some $462 million for UN and NGO humanitarian assistance programs in the “occupied Palestinian territories.” Of that total, $275 million is earmarked for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for Palestinian Arab refugees. And therein lies the problem.
The UNRWA has a reputation for taking a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighting alleged Israeli military actions while glossing over the Palestinian terror that triggers them. That ideological blind spot was very much in evidence in the presentations given last week in Jerusalem by Maxwell Gaylard, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator; Philippe Lazzarin, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and Filippo Grandi, the Deputy Commissioner-General of UNRWA.
Each of the speakers focused on the hardship endured by Palestinians as a result of Israeli practices. Of primary concern was the Israeli closure of Gaza. Maxwell Gaylard claimed that the Israeli position is to keep crossings into Gaza closed as long as rockets – shot from Gaza into Israel – continue to fall, with humanitarian goods permitted to enter only if the rockets stop. But with crossings frequently shut down, he said, even basic supplies are not reaching the Palestinian people.
Gaylard judged this situation intolerable. While allowing that the rocket attacks are to be condemned, he explained that the UN wants the crossings opened more fully, with imports and exports moving in and out. What’s happening now, he stated, is “collective punishment.” Asked by a journalist whether he was demanding that Israel open the crossings fully even if the rockets kept flying, he dodged the question.
Similarly, Philippe Lazzarin made it clear that, from a UN perspective, there was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Gaylard concurred, saying that he thought it was so severe that the closure represented an “assault on every human right.” In this connection, Grandi lamented that during the five-month truce between Hamas and Israel there has been only a 20 percent increase in the transport of goods into Gaza, so that UNRWA still has not been able to bring in sufficient humanitarian supplies. He noted that 12 UNRWA trucks bearing supplies were expected to be allowed through that day but which ultimately were not granted permission.
Tellingly, not one of the UN’s representatives paused to dwell on the hardships faced by Israeli victims of Palestinian terror – not least the rocket attacks that have relentlessly pummeled Israeli villages and cities. Given these very conspicuous omissions, it is not surprising that Israel remains wary of the UN’s role as a mediator in the conflict.
Indeed, a subsequent interview with Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, provided a perspective vastly at odds with that presented at the UN press conference. In some instances, Dror directly refuted statements made by the UN representatives. Most significantly, he rejected the charge that it is Israeli policy to disallow humanitarian supplies into Gaza until the rockets stop. While a broader opening of the crossings are dependent on the cessation of rocket attacks, he explained, humanitarian supplies are permitted whenever it is possible to open a crossing. As evidence, he pointed out that trucks went into Gaza on November 29, the day of the press conference, even though rockets had been launched that day, and also for three days prior.
It bears noting that while the UN’s Grandi referred to 12 UNRWA trucks that were not allowed to cross on that day, he did not mention that there are other agencies besides the UN at work. In total on November 29, 40 trucks went through. It is a mark of Israel’s good intentions – though one that the UN has declined to credit – that Israeli funds were recently spent revamping the Keren Shalom crossing to permit passage of a greater number of trucks.
These are not the only important points ignored by the UNRWA. When the agency complains about closed crossings, it fails to mention that the crossings themselves are often under attack. Israelis manning checkpoints are thus in constant danger of being targeted by bomb attacks or shootings. In essence, then, what the UNRWA officials are actually demanding in calling for more border crossings is that Israelis risk their lives so that goods can move through. It’s difficult to imagine the UN’s representatives, for all their professed concern for the Palestinians’ plight, relishing such a proposition.
Most deafening of all is the UNRWA’s silence about Hamas’ culpability for the violence. Never has there been a UN demand that Palestinian terrorists stop targeting border crossings, even though this makes it impossible for Israel to open them. A focus on Israeli control over border crossings also diverts attention from the dozens of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, which are used to smuggle into Gaza all manner of arms for Hamas.
In its 2009 fundraising appeal on behalf of “occupied Palestinian territory,” the UN states that “all donors must be held accountable for upholding their humanitarian commitments in the coming year.” If Israelis remain skeptical of the UN, it is because they wonder when the organization will finally get around to asking that question of the Palestinians.