UN agency handed rockets back to Hamas, Israel says
UNRWA says it gave 20 missiles found in Gaza school to ‘local authorities’ that are under the ‘government of national consensus in Ramallah’
Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.
A United Nations agency that last week found rockets in a Gaza school operating under its auspices has handed that weaponry over to Hamas, Israeli officials said Sunday, accusing the organization of actively helping the terrorist organization potentially attack Israeli civilians.
“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.
A different senior official said UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, charged with overseeing humanitarian efforts in Gaza, has been suffering from “battered-wife syndrome” for years and currently “attempts to ingratiate itself with Hamas.”
A spokesperson for UNRWA said the organization gave the rockets to “local authorities,” which answer to the Hamas-backed unity government led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. UNRWA pledged to fully investigate the incident once the fighting stops and keep all relevant parties informed, but refused to release any photos of the weapons.
“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 Sunday.
“Immediately after the discovery of the rockets, UNRWA proactively informed the relevant parties and successfully took all necessary measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school. Local authorities fall under the government of national consensus in Ramallah. They pledged to pass a message to all parties not to violate UNRWA neutrality.”
A Western diplomat familiar with the incident said there is “absolutely no evidence” that UNRWA handed the rockets to Hamas. Rather, the diplomat suggested, the authorities who collected the rockets are under the direct authority of the Palestinian unity government, “which Hamas has left and which many in Hamas are openly hostile to. The key point is that the weapons were handed over to people who are not answerable to Hamas,” the diplomat said, referring to the fact that the unity government, not Hamas, is officially the ruling power in Gaza.
On Wednesday, UNRWA officials found some 20 missiles in a vacant school. A day later it released a statement strongly condemning “the group or groups responsible for placing the weapons in one of its installations. This is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law,” the statement read.
UNRWA immediately convened an inquiry to investigate the incident, Gunness said. “All existing evidence will be handed over by UNRWA to the investigation, which can commence as soon as hostilities in Gaza are over.”
Israel has requested the UN release photos of the rockets. Officials plan to disseminate these images to bolster its assertion that Hamas is hiding missiles in schools, diplomatic sources said Friday.
But UNRWA is currently refusing to disclose any photos, arguing that “any photographic material” is evidence needed for UNRWA’s evidence. “We will keep relevant players informed about the investigation,” Gunness said.
UNRWA has “strong, established procedures to maintain the neutrality of all its premises, including a strict no-weapons policy and routine inspections of its installations, to ensure they are only used for humanitarian purposes,” he added.
In Jerusalem, such assertions are rejected, even ridiculed. “Time and again, over the years, UNRWA is being abused by gunmen from different terrorist factions who are using UN facilities to stockpile weapons, to fire rockets from, to steal UNRWA humanitarian equipment and to cause damage and fire in UNRWA’s hangars,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel.
“Against all evidence, UNRWA refuses to acknowledge reality and pathetically attempts to ingratiate itself with Hamas, pretending that nothing serious has happened,” the senior official said. “This is a classic case of beaten-wife syndrome, which we have been witnessing for years from UNRWA. The people of Gaza, and indeed taxpayers from countries who contributive to UNRWA’s budget — including Israel — deserve better.”
Israel plans to raise this issue with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is expected to arrive in Israel on Tuesday.