UN defends Palestine refugee agency against Israeli criticism

UN defends Palestine refugee agency against Israeli criticism

By Ellen Ratner   
Gaza school children at a UNRWA school during a 2016 by previous U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Gaza school children at a UNRWA school during a 2016 by previous U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. defended its Palestinian refugee agency against Israeli criticism on Monday, pushing back on a call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the agency be disbanded for inciting violence against the Israeli state.

“The Secretary-General is concerned about recent public criticism of [U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] and the integrity of its operations,” U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq said.

Netanyahu’s latest criticism of the U.N. agency follows the discovery of a tunnel created by Hamas militants beneath a pair of UNRWA schools in the Gaza Strip.

In a June 9th statement, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness stated that “the tunnel has no entry or exit points on the premises nor is it connected to the schools or other buildings in any way.”

“UNRWA condemns the existence of such tunnels in the strongest possible terms. It is unacceptable that students and staff are placed at risk in such a way,” he said, noting that UNRWA would seal the tunnel.

Shortly after UNRWA’s announcement of the tunnel discovery, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon penned a letter to the U.N. Security Council asking the council to condemn Hamas and that “all UN-affiliated agencies, and especially UNRWA, remain neutral and safeguarded from abuse by terrorist organizations.”

In a subsequent cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu dialed up the criticism of UNRWA further, accusing the agency of “a lot of incitement against Israel.”

“The existence of UNRWA – and unfortunately its work from time to time – perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem rather than solve it,” Netanyahu said.

It’s not the first time Israeli officials have leveled accusations against UNRWA. Earlier this year the agency came under fire after researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found UNRWA using textbooks supplied by the Palestinian Ministry of Defense that disavowed the concept of a two-state solution.

Those criticisms resurfaced at a U.N. press briefing on Monday, as Haq was forced to answer whether the U.N. and Secretary-General António Guterres endorsed the use of the controversial textbooks.

“What they try to do in the places where they operate is to encourage the instruction of tolerance, and they do try to teach messages of tolerance in all the curricula in the countries where they operate,” Haq said

“The Secretary-General calls on all Member States to continue their support to the Agency in order for UNRWA to be in a position to fulfill impartially and efficiently its essential role and to implement its humanitarian mandate to serve Palestinian refugees until a just and durable solution to their situation is found.”

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