UNRWA operates in five different, and very politically-fraught, contexts: an Israeli occupied West Bank (with a local Palestinian Authority); a Hamas-controlled Gaza; a Jordan that is highly sensitive to the demographic politics of the Palestinian presence; Lebanon, where demographic sensitivity is augmented by restrictive government policies and greater insecurity; and a bloody and authoritarian Syria where more than 150,000 people have died in the ongoing civil war. The refugees for whom it provides services have strong Palestinian nationalist views, as naturally do the vast bulk of its (Palestinian) employees. Its funding primarily comes from the West, however. Fully one-quarter of its budget comes from Israel’s greatest ally, the United States.
And, in this context of conflict, tension, and differing perspectives it must remain “neutral.” It comes as no surprise that former UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi used to characterize the issue of neutrality as the agency’s greatest operational challenge.
During the current war in Gaza, questions have been raised again about the agency’s neutrality. On three occasions, weapons caches have been found in UNRWA schools that were closed for the summer. Additional controversy was generated when UNRWA—a humanitarian organization completely unequipped to deal with potentially lethal explosives—sought have the weapons removed by munitions experts linked not to Hamas but rather to the Palestinian unity government in Ramallah. Who these experts were, and where the rockets ended up, remains unclear, but critics charge they were returned to Hamas. In another case, armed men apparent removed the weapons before they could be dealt with. UNRWA has strongly and vociferously condemned efforts to hide weapons in its facilities, and stepped up its inspection regime:
UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.
The Agency immediately informed the relevant parties and is pursuing all possible measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school. UNRWA will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.
UNRWA has reinforced and continues to implement its robust procedures to maintain the neutrality of all its premises, including a strict no-weapons policy and regular inspections of its installations, to ensure they are only used for humanitarian purposes.
Palestinian civilians in Gaza rely on UNRWA to provide humanitarian assistance and shelter. At all times, and especially during escalations of violence, the sanctity and integrity of UN installations must be respected.
The UN is investigating the Agency’s handling of these situations.
It is not clear what else UNRWA could have done. The schools were closed and unstaffed. UNRWA does not have armed guards or a police force, nor could they function in Gaza with one. The UN does not have the capacity in Gaza to handle a complex explosive ordnance disposal task like this. Israel had no capacity to take custody of the rockets, and handing over to weapons to another belligerent would have been just as problematic from a neutrality point-of-view. There was no secure way safely transport the weapons out of Gaza during a war. And given its control on the ground, if Hamas wanted to take custody of the weapons no one was in a position to prevent them. Anyone who thinks there was an easy fix to the situation clearly has little understanding of circumstances on the ground, or is being deliberately obtuse to serve a broader political agenda.
A second and much more serious neutrality issue was raised by Israeli reports today that its troops found a tunnel entrance inside an UNRWA clinic—and that the building itself was booby-trapped and exploded, killing three IDF soldiers.
However, the IDF is now backing off on that original claim, noting that the clinic may not have been a UN facility after all. According to the Times of Israel:
Three IDF soldiers were killed Wednesday morning in Gaza in an explosion at a booby-trapped UNRWA health clinic that housed a tunnel entry shaft, the IDF’s Gaza Division commander, Brig. Gen. Micky Edelstein, said in a briefing.
After describing certain precautionary measures, Edelstein said, “And then we enter with our people, and they [the militants], from the very same terror tunnel, they blow up half the clinic on our troops.”“They blow [up] the UNRWA clinic on our troops.”
UNRWA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the military unit that implements government policies in the Palestinian areas, later said that the clinic in Abu Daka, outside Khan Younis, was last registered as a sensitive location three years ago, “and it hasn’t been since.”
The spokesperson said the site had not been registered then as belonging to UNRWA, leading to speculation that, perhaps, militants stole the sign and tacked it on the door, posting it as a security umbrella under which a tunnel could be dug.
If it was an UNRWA clinic, a detailed investigation and follow-up will be required. If instead the UN logo was misused, UNRWA will undoubtedly protest this abuse too. If Israeli soldiers were confused, the Agency will likely quietly complain to the IDF. If it was a former clinic and an honest mistake by the IDF, these things happen. In any case, the “booby-trapped clinic” story will continue to reverberate on the internet regardless of whether, as now seems likely, it is disproved.
Violations of UNRWA’s neutrality by armed groups in Gaza is actually very rare—indeed, these recent incidents are the only ones to have taken place in the last twenty years or more. Previously, the Agency’s bigger problem was with Israel temporarily misusing UN facilities for military purposes in the West Bank as observation posts or detention centres during the second intifada, something that has happened a dozen or so times.
A broader critique levelled at the organization is that some of its employees may support Hamas or other radical armed groups. In a political environment where Hamas enjoys the support of about one-third of the Palestinian population, it is almost certainly the case that this happens. However the Agency has a strict neutrality policy that prohibits overt politics by employees, who face disciplinary action of dismissal for any such activity. Moreover, the Agency supplies its full employee lists to Israel and other host governments for vetting every year. At no point has Israel ever requested that the Agency take action against a particular employee because of affiliation with a terrorist group. UNRWA’s neutrality policies are frequently audited by donors, and especially by the United States. Usually these find a few areas where they would like the Agency to strengthen efforts, but otherwise are very positive.
For their part, Palestinians sometimes criticize the organization for tilting towards Israel and the United States. There has been unhappiness that UNRWA curriculum doesn’t teach more about Palestinian national history. Hamas has been critical of the Agency’s human rights lessons. It also has strongly opposed the Agency’s periodic summer youth activities, seeing these as a moderate rival to Hamas’ own militant summer camps. (The US, on the other hand, has praised the Agency’s youth activities as an “indispensable counterweight to extremism.”)
The issues raised above are just those with regard to the occupied Palestinian territories too. Issues of neutrality arise in other ways in Jordan, Lebanon, and especially Syria. How, for example, does the Agency manage to protect neutrality when it must necessarily deal with both the Syrian government and opposition armed groups there? Dialogue with one is easily seen by the other as tantamount to treason.
In short, the Agency is in a very difficult position. It has no ability to force actors to observe its neutrality beyond diplomacy and moral suasion. Everyone from donors to host countries to Palestinian groups to Israel would like to use it to further their own respective interests. Given all that, it is clear that it has generally done an excellent job of navigating political shoals and safeguarding neutrality amidst the ongoing challenges posed by conflict, violence, and an unresolved Palestinian refugee problem.