Nearly five months after a United Nations agency pledged to investigate rockets found on its premises during this summer’s Gaza war, no such inquiry has taken place.
While other UN institutions have rolled out commissions of inquiry into Operation Protective Edge, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA, has yet to launch the promised probe to examine the circumstances of three separate instances in which rockets having been placed in schools it operates.
How these weapons got into the schools and what happened to them afterwards remains somewhat unclear. UNRWA says it returned the rockets to “the local authorities,” which Israeli officials charge means they found their way back to Hamas and might have been fired at Israeli civilians.
On Monday, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon launched an “internal and independent” inquiry into incidents that involved UN premises during Operation Protective Edge, including the shelling by Israeli forces of UNRWA schools and the rockets found there.
The creation of Ban’s probe, led by retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, was first announced less than three weeks ago, during Ban’s remarks to a UN Security Council briefing on the “Situation in the Middle East.” During his speech, he said he looked forward to Israel’s own investigation into several incidents “in which UN facilities sustained hits and many innocent people were killed.”
A spokesperson for Ban said that he hopes the probe “will enjoy the full cooperation of all parties concerned,” yet Israel has yet to decide whether it will work with Cammaert and his co-investigators, Maria Vicien-Milburn (from Argentina), Lee O’Brien (United States), Pierre Lemelin (Canada) and K.C. Reddy (India).
“Israel will conduct its dialogue over the commission of inquiry, including allegations of support for terrorism by UNRWA employees, through diplomatic channels,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said Tuesday.
According to UNRWA, at least half a dozen UNRWA schools “were hit directly by shelling or affected by rocket fire,” causing “serious loss of life” and injuries.
“We condemned such military actions by Israel explicitly and unreservedly,” Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said back in August, referring to episodes of heavy fighting in Beit Hanoun, Jabalia and Rafah, during which UNRWA institutions came under fire. “We cannot comprehend why they occurred, and even less why they happened so repeatedly. We have asked for investigations to be carried out and for accountability.”
The Israel Defense Forces in September launched criminal investigations into five incidents that occurred during the 50-day war, including a July 24 strike on an UNRWA school in northern Gaza.
On July 23, the UN Human Rights Council voted in favor of the establishment of a new “international commission of inquiry” into the Gaza war. Less than a month later, on August 11, the council announced the launch of the probe, headed by Canadian human rights lawyer William Schabas.
Israel immediately declared it would not cooperate with the investigators. “This investigation by a kangaroo court is a foregone conclusion,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time. On October 1, Netanyahu complained to Ban during a meeting in New York that the Human Rights Council was not focusing its inquiry on Hamas, “which used UN facilities in order to fire at Israel, and asserted that Israel would struggle against this.”
In stark contrast to the Human Rights Council and the secretary-general, UNRWA has yet to make good on its promise to investigate how rockets could have been stored at its schools in Gaza.
After about 20 rockets were discovered “hidden in a vacant school” in Gaza on July 17, UNRWA condemned “the group or groups responsible for placing the weapons in one of its installations.”
In a statement, the agency said the incident was the first of its kind and “a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.” It also stated that “UNRWA has launched a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
Less than a week later, on July 22, rockets were again found at a vacant UNRWA school in the coastal enclave. The agency published a similar press release, vowing that it “will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
Another week later, on July 29, a third cache of rockets was discovered at an UNRWA school in central Gaza. The organization again condemned the incident, calling on “the warring parties to respect the inviolability of UN property.” This time, UNRWA did not promise an investigation.
What happened to the rockets after they were found is a matter of dispute.
“The rockets were passed on to the government authorities in Gaza, which is Hamas. In other words, UNRWA handed to Hamas rockets that could well be shot at Israel,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel in July.
UNRWA said the rockets were transferred to “local authorities” operating under “the government of national consensus.” Israel has no evidence for its claims, the agency said, insisting that the bomb disposal experts who removed the rockets do not answer to Hamas but to the Palestinian unity government (which includes no Hamas officials but is backed by the Islamist group).
“According to longstanding UN practice in UN humanitarian operations worldwide, incidents involving unexploded ordnance that could endanger beneficiaries and staff are referred to the local authorities,” UNRWA’s director of advocacy and strategic communications, Christopher Gunness, told The Times of Israel at the time.
Since then, however, Gunness has been refusing to respond to Times of Israel queries regarding the matter, specifically about the makeup of the inquiry UNRWA promised to establish. Asked several times who is conducting the investigation and whether UNRWA intends on publishing the results, he simply referred to the agency’s website, which provides no information whatsoever on the promised probe.
After this reporter turned to other UNRWA officials in the search for information about the inquiry, Gunness instructed all other UNRWA and UN spokespersons to ignore these queries and refer them to him.
It should be noted, however, that UNRWA does not seek to cover up the fact that rockets were found on its premises. Commissioner-General Krähenbühl, the agency’s senior-most official, has mentioned them at least twice in public appearances.
He referred to them as “another challenge in our operational field,” in a briefing to the Security Council on July 31. “UNRWA is now working with UN partners to improve procedures to address such violations, in a manner that does not compromise the safety of staff or civilians, including UNRWA beneficiaries.”
Addressing the UN General Assembly on August 7, Krähenbühl again mentioned discoveries of rockets in his schools. “The world knows about these,” he said, “because UNRWA inspections work and because we swiftly informed everyone on the ground and in the world through our clear and deliberate public communications and condemnations of these abuses of the sanctity of UNRWA premises.”