Efforts to investigate the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency, which is accused of allowing terrorism to flourish in the refugee camps it services, are falling flat on Capitol Hill and in the United Nations.
But those pressing the issue, including Jewish groups, say they will persevere.
Scrutiny of the U.N. agency began with Israel’s Operation Protective Wall, launched in April to root out terrorism in the West Bank.
One-third of Palestinian suicide bombers have come from the refugee camp of Jenin, serviced by UNRWA.
Israel’s operation confirmed an elaborate terrorist infrastructure in the camp and set into motion a clamor for an investigation into the negligence or even abetment by the U.N. agency that gets 30 percent of its funding, or nearly $90 million a year, from the United States.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) sent letters to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for an investigation into UNRWA. Lantos’ harsher, more detailed letter calls the agency “complicit in terrorism.”
Staff of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee have made investigative tours of the UNRWA camps.
And Alan Baker, legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, visited Washington last week to raise the issue with the State Department, members of Congress and the media.
In the last month, two senior UNRWA staff members have defended the agency in closed-door briefings to staff of the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While the efforts have resulted in dialogue, there are no State Department or legislative plans to withhold funding of the agency. And Capitol Hill insiders say a congressional hearing on the subject is unlikely anytime soon.
It would not be politic for the United States to withhold the paychecks for the 11,000 Palestinians working for UNRWA in the West Bank and Gaza, according to one House staffer.
“We think we’re making some of our points by having a dialogue with UNRWA,” another congressional source said. The “hearing process is not always the best way” to “move the ball on this.”
For his part, Annan responded to the lawmakers’ letters, defending UNRWA and blaming local authorities for security matters.
“The United Nations has no responsibility for security matters in refugee camps, or indeed anywhere else in the occupied territory,” Annan wrote Lantos.
“Depending on whether a camp lies in Israeli or Palestinian-controlled areas, either the government of Israel or the Palestinian Authority is responsible for preventing unlawful activities,” he continued.
“Far from being complicit with terrorism, the United Nations is striving to alleviate human suffering in the area” and “help the parties renew their negotiations on a permanent status agreement,” Annan wrote.
In his letters to Lantos and Specter, Annan included a detailed explanation by UNRWA’s commissioner general, Peter Hansen, who reiterated that UNRWA does not “supervise” the camps, and stated that the agency has won approval by Israel and the United States.
Israel concedes that UNRWA does important humanitarian work on behalf of the refugees.
But Israel has been long concerned about certain aspects of UNRWA, said Mark Regev, spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
“Events in Jenin led to a heightened awareness” of UNRWA’s failure to halt terror and pushed the issue into “higher gear,” he said.
Israel was particularly incensed by “U.N. officials giving credence to Jenin massacre rubbish,” Regev added, referring to the rumors, since proven unfounded, that Israel carried out a massacre during its military operation there.
But Israel’s outspokenness has little “bearing on this issue,” according to one Hill staffer.
“You may not like what UNRWA does or doesn’t do but their mission is very clearly defined,” she said, referring to the popular complaint that UNRWA – unlike the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which seeks a “durable solution” for the world’s refugees – keeps Palestinians in refugee status.
Any change to UNRWA’s mandate, which is providing humanitarian relief without a role in finding a solution to the refugee problem, will have to take place at the U.N.’s General Assembly, where Israel and the United States are likely to find few supporters, she said.
That mandate, along with the low financial contribution by Arab countries to UNRWA, remain “ongoing concerns” for Lantos, one of his spokesmen said.
However, Lantos, at the helm of the congressional crusade of inquiry into UNRWA, has no immediate plans to sponsor legislation on the subject.
For its part, a State Department official said, “the Department of State is working with UNRWA to ensure that they are taking every possible measure to protect their facilities and assistance programs from misuse by criminal elements.”
However, she said, “We note that ultimately it is the responsibility of the local authority” and “we’ve urged the Palestinian Authority to act effectively in the camps where it has responsibility.”
But passing the buck to local authorities is disingenuous, according to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been pressing the issue.
“They’re trying to shirk their responsibility,” said AIPAC’s press secretary, Joshua Block.
The UNRWA refugee camps are “the shelter for terrorist groups that launch attacks against Israeli civilians,” Block said.
AIPAC will continue to push for hearings on the U.N. agency, he said, adding that members of Congress are interested in pursuing the issue.
The World Jewish Congress, which is also lobbying Congress to examine UNRWA, agreed the issue is not over in Washington.
The WJC is seeking for Congress and the Bush administration to take a “closer look” at UNRWA, whether that’s an internal investigation or open hearings in Congress, a WJC official said.
This piece ran on the JTA wire on July 2, 2002