BEACH CAMP, Gaza Strip – The tall, whitewashed wall that surrounds the food distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency here is decorated with murals of exploding Israeli boats and burning jeeps.
Alongside the murals, boldly drawn Arabic calligraphy posted by the Islamic extremist group Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, praises a militant named Hamdi Arafat who died while killing Israelis.
Inside the distribution center, from which vast quantities of flour, rice, oil, and sardines are distributed to Palestinian refugees by the United Nations agency, unemployed men complain that the food aid does not go to those who need it most because the agency is corrupt – though not as corrupt, they quickly add, as the Palestinian Authority.
At the UN agency’s Beach Elementary Boys School nearby, custodians have just finished stripping a year’s layer of posters glorifying suicide bombers from the classroom. Exploding grenades, flaming machine guns, and the slogans of Hamas and Islamic Jihad festoon the outer walls. The UN agency’s teachers, a custodian says, do not dare stop children from putting up the graffiti and posters.
Israelis and their American supporters cite such holy war images in and around the schools as evidence that the UN agency bears major responsibility for allowing the Palestinian camps to become strongholds of terrorism. Its defenders maintain that the relief agency is a force for moderation among Palestinians, and does what it can to control violent sentiment in the camps where it carries out its humanitarian work.
The UN agency is the dominant social institution in the camps, providing almost all food aid, education, and health services. Israeli officials and the agency’s critics say it is inconceivable that the camps have become centers of militant activities without the knowledge, and perhaps the consent, of the relief agency.
“Bomb-making, indoctrination, recruiting, and dispatching of suicide bombers all are centered in the camps,” said Alan Baker, chief counsel of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, after he returned last week from consultations in Washington and New York about the UN agency.
“It is not UNRWA’s role to police the camps,” Baker said, “but UNRWA functions in the schools and in society, and when it saw such developments and recognized they are in violation of Security Council resolutions, they should have reported this to the secretary general.”
Security Council resolutions prohibit the use of refugee camps for military training and the manufacture and storage of weapons. Secretary General Kofi Annan refers to camps as protected areas that should not be used for any purpose that could put the refugees at risk.
Peter Hansen, the Norwegian national who has been commissioner general of the UN agency since 1996, says the assertion by Jerusalem and Washington that “UNRWA is condoning and supporting terror… is outrageous. There is no evidence to support it.”
He dismissed media reports that the Israel Defense Forces found an agency facility in use as an arsenal in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. “We do not have a warehouse in Balata camp,” he said.
“We have done everything possible” to keep gunmen out of agency facilities, Hansen said. “Where we found gunmen have gained access, we protested strenuously to the Palestinian Authority and demanded that they do their job.”
He also said that agency schools often are used as detention centers and sniper bases by Israeli troops operating in the West Bank.
“UNRWA demands that staff not engage in any political activity, and not glorify suicides,” Hansen said. “We do our best to take down posters” that glorify the deeds of suicide bombers and gunmen. But, he said, “I’m not saying there’s never been a teacher who has given vent to deeply felt sentiments in contravention of our regulations. You can’t separate people from their political feelings.”
Regarding allegations that incitement to hatred is condoned in agency schools’ curricula, Hansen said: “We have to use the curriculum of the host country. Here in Gaza, that is the Egyptian curriculum. In the West Bank, it is Jordanian. We have done what we can to make up for some of the phraseology, which I admit is not to my liking. You should be able to talk about a Jew without saying `dirty Jew.”‘
Hansen was dismissive of the tributes to bombers painted on the walls of the UN agency’s compounds: “We have so many more important things to do than look to the outside appearance of the facilities.”
But to the Israelis and to many Palestinians, the good work of the agency does not excuse what they see as a go-along-to-get-along policy toward corrupt Palestinian politicians, a policy they say leads the agency to tolerate profiteering on food supplies that are supposed to be free, and to turning a blind eye to extremist elements.
In the Beach Elementary Boys School, posters in the corridor lionize Sultan Abdul Hamid bin Abdul Maggid, who told Zionism’s founder, Theodore Herzl, that “if you pay me the world in gold… I will not accept you in Palestine because I am serving God, the Islamic nation, the nation of Mohammed.”
School maps show only Muslim cities; Tel Aviv and Nazareth do not exist. During the school year, the walls are papered with portraits of suicide bombers, which are stripped off during vacations only to be replaced as soon as the students return.
“The students bring the pictures of the martyrs and suicide bombers – a lot of pictures – and the teachers feel they cannot tell them to take them down,” says Khaled Abu Daya, a longtime construction worker in Israel who is a part-time custodian on a meager agency salary. “The students will oppose them and call them collaborators.
“The students here are too young for these things,” he said.
Abu Daya and many others interviewed on a recent general food distribution day were upset by what they saw as corruption in the UN agency that parallels the corruption of the Palestinian Authority.
“My neighbor has a Mercedes, his sons have jobs, and he receives rations from UNRWA as a hardship case,” Abu Daya said. “He has bought land, he has built a house, and he still is listed as a hardship case,” entitling him to free supplies of flour, rice, and other foodstuffs over and above what ordinary refugees receive.
Inside food distribution compounds, outside their gates, and at nearby stores, the coupons Palestinians use to claim emergency food aid made available through the UN agency by international donors are bought and sold. The food itself, in packages clearly marked “not for resale,” is openly resold.
Faez Abu Amri, a temporary food-distribution worker for the UN agency, says that “90 percent of the people who are getting this food aid do not need it,” while the truly needy get less than they should have.
“I see people with boats, stores, and jobs” who get the food and resell it, or sell their food coupons, he said.
Israelis see the UN agency’s tolerance of armed militants in the camps and its policy of distributing food to all registered refugees, no matter how prosperous they may have become over the decades, as indicative of an agency that is not fulfilling its mission either for refugees or for the international community.
“Sometimes you create something that cannot stop itself,” says Eliezer Sandberg, parliamentary leader of Israel’s Shinui Party. “That is UNRWA. What they do does not contribute to solving the problem of the refugees.”
Nevertheless, Baker, the Foreign Ministry official, says Israel “feels the continued functioning of UNRWA is important…. UNRWA has all the infrastructure and facilities to make a major contribution to bringing Palestinians out of this culture of violence.”
Charles A. Radin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This article ran in the Boston Globe on July 8, 2002