The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has followed a consistent pattern over the course of more than two months now. They register complaints to the media with regard to IDF humanitarian “abuses” in Gaza. These “abuses,” according to Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd, include the siege of Gaza, the targeted killings of “suspected militants” and Israeli incursions into densely populated neighborhoods, causing terror among the civilian population. All of this “has badly shaken the society.”

An on-going UNRWA complaint has been the IDF practice of closing crossings into Gaza, which inhibits the agency’s ability to move in goods and supplies. This is particularly the case with the Karni Crossing. IDF soldiers have been killed in attacks at this site in the past, and Israel finds it necessary to close this crossing when there is warning of an imminent attack – a not infrequent occurrence. UNRWA declines to utilize alternate crossing sites made available by the IDF, claiming that this would require a re-packaging of supplies – palletizing – that is prohibitively expensive. The choice thus made by UNRWA in these instances is to allow potential recipients of its goods to go without, even in instances when the possibility to get at least some supplies in does exist.

Says AbuZayd, once access to Gaza is more readily achieved, UNRWA is “ready with a major development program to rehabilitate the overcrowded and dilapidated refugee camps, and reconstruct houses and school buildings… ” To that end, major fundraising efforts are underway. It is difficult not to speculate on the relationship between a population that “does without” and UNRWA’s anticipated success in fundraising.

The major news here, however, is the degree to which UNRWA has moved beyond its mandate. UNRWA is, clearly and unequivocally, defined as a humanitarian social service agency. According to GA Resolution 302, of December 1949, UNRWA was founded to carry out “relief and works programs” on a temporary basis. As “temporary” morphed into “permanent” – with its mandate repeatedly renewed, UNRWA developed a major bureaucracy in order to provide the Palestinian refugees (as defined by UNRWA) with humanitarian services. The agency, on its very own website, says that it is “a relief and human development agency, providing education, healthcare, social services and emergency aid.” Nowhere is there a suggestion that UNRWA has jurisdiction in the political sphere.

This has hardly stopped UNRWA, however. At a press conference on September 7, AbuZayd openly criticized the UN directive to all staff not to have any contact with Hamas: “We should engage with them and encourage them, discuss with them. This is a movement that has been more or less underground and had little contact with the outside world. It needs to hear from other people and we are discouraged from doing that.” The last thing that the UN – which was at least nominally attempting to establish a policy with regard to the isolation of Hamas – needed was second guessing from a constituent agency.

Apparently on a roll, AbuZayd went on to make a broadly publicized suggestion that an international presence be introduced into Gaza, although she was vague as to the nature of such a presence (“civilian, military, whatever”). Her vision has something to do with observers who would somehow make certain that crossings into Gaza were kept open more of the time. At first blush, one is hard-pressed to know whether she thought that this international presence would discourage Israel from closing the crossings even if there were terrorists threats, or would discourage terrorists from making such threats. In due course, however, it all becomes quite clear.

To emphasize what she has in mind, she pointed out the “success” of the placement of European Union observers at the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt last year as part of a US-brokered deal between Israel and the PA. “It allowed people to move. It was very exciting… ” The EU observers, who were in place until the IDF shut down Rafah with the violence this summer, were, quite literally, observers. They observed as wanted terrorists moved unhindered into Gaza. Undoubtedly the terrorists were excited to be able to do so.

In response to a question at the press conference, AbuZayd elaborated still further: There would be no need, she explained, for the tunnels, if people were permitted to move back and forth freely.

“The tunnels” to which the UNRWA Commissioner-General was alluding are furtively dug between Egypt and Gaza in order to facilitate the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, intended, of course, for use against Israel. Or, between Gaza and Israel, allowing for terrorists and their weapons to enter Israel in an effort to launch terrorist attacks. These latter tunnels, it should be noted, are frequently directed at or near the site of crossings.

Thus, at last, does AbuZayd make her vision clear: Israeli security be damned; Israeli deaths are without import. Open those crossings, come what may, so that UNRWA, “a social service agency,” can move its supplies in with ease and enlarge its operation. With this clarification, she has provided a huge rationale for reigning in or shutting down her agency, which has stepped perilously beyond its original humanitarian mandate.

This article was published in | September 26, 2006