One of the common features of politics in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, is the way in which rumour and misinformation are constantly transmitted within incestuous circles of like-minded partisans until they becomes accepted as fact by those who want to believe. In the intelligence community the various elements of this vicious circle of inaccuracy are known as RUMINT (“rumour intelligence”), circular reporting (whereby stories gain apparently credibility as they circulate, ultimately being used to “confirm” their own veracity), and confirmation bias (when analysts prioritize information that fits their own preconceptions).
The refugee issue is no exception. We’ve already seen the case of the booby-trapped UNRWA clinic that turned out to not be an UNRWA clinic at all. Now, courtesy of the never-very-reliable Algemeiner, we have the accusation that bags of “UNRWA cement” are being found in Hamas “terror tunnels”:
…the UN group also ignored one finding this week, where bags of cement marked UNRWA, the UN arm that manages schools and other institutions in Gaza, inside a terror tunnel.
It has also reported that “Hamas in Gaza is using UNRWA equipment to dig its longest tunnels under Israeli territory.” There is even a photo to prove the accusation (left). These claims have now been repeated on dozens of partisan websites, and circulated even more widely on social media.
The problem, of course, is that the sacks in question are not bags of UN cement, nor did the IDF (who first circulated the picture) ever claim that they were. Rather, they are bags that once contained rice or flour, which someone has reused to carry dirt during tunnel construction. And what about the “UNRWA equipment”? Well, it turns out those are empty bags too.
With almost half the population of Gaza receiving some form supplementary or emergency food from UNRWA and WFP, these kinds of bags are ubiquitous in Gaza. As you might expect in a besieged economy, Gaza is also a place where pretty much everything is recycled.
There have been other efforts to somehow link UNRWA to Hamas tunnels. Some have suggested that the limited amounts of cement sent into Gaza for UN aid projects was diverted by Hamas. This is unlikely, however. Until 2013 up to 90% of Gaza’s cement supply came in from Egypt through smuggling tunnels, with the price dropping as low as $140/ton. Hamas’ requirements for the construction of military fortifications would have been only a small proportion of total imports into Gaza for civilian purposes and would have been easily purchased locally. Indeed, cement for UN projects was probably the least likely to be diverted since its importation and use was controlled and audited—a point apparently lost on critics.
The massive damage caused to Palestinian homes and other civilian infrastructure by Israeli military action during the current conflict will require substantial reconstruction efforts. As UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness has noted:
It will also require cement. And here the picture is now bleaker than ever.
Since 2013, the closure of tunnels by Egypt has made smuggling much more difficult, especially for high-bulk, low-cost items like cement. Israel has been alarmed by Hamas’ effective use of tunnels in the current conflict, and has indicated that it will link future cement supplies via Israel to the disarmament of Hamas. In doing so it will deliberately hold the civilian population hostage to the behaviour of combatants they cannot control. Hamas, for its part, will not voluntarily disarm, thereby also placing its military strategy ahead of the needs of Gaza’s people.
And, throughout all this, the myth of UN “terror cement” will live on in the partisan echo-chambers of the internet.
UPDATE – 16 September 2014
In its latest report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (representing the international donor community), the office of the UN Special Coordinator addresses the issue (emphasis added):
41) The network of physical structures for civilian life in the Gaza Strip was already inadequate before the conflict. There was for example an estimated shortfall of 71,000 housing units and 250 schools. Israeli restrictions on the import of construction material were reintroduced in October 2013 after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) uncovered a mile-long tunnel from the Gaza Strip into Israel constructed with slabs of concrete.68 After this incident, virtually all construction projects, including UN projects, were suspended – even though materials imported under UN auspices have not been diverted from their exclusively civilian purpose. Subsequently, all but $11.6 million worth of previously approved UN works have resumed. A further $105 million worth of new UN works are awaiting approval by the Israeli authorities. Preliminary assessments of war destruction suggest that 26 schools were totally destroyed, and 223 schools and 11 higher education facilities were damaged, while 75 hospitals, clinics and health centres also suffered damage. In addition, 13 per cent of the housing stock was affected, with 18,000 housing units totally destroyed or severely damaged and 14,000 partially damaged. While temporary housing solutions need to be found for the estimated more than 108,000 internally displaced persons who have been left homeless, reconstruction is the main longer-term priority.69
42) During the conflict, the IDF uncovered and destroyed an extensive tunnel network extending from the Gaza Strip into several points in Israel, constructed by Hamas with materials smuggled into the Gaza Strip. No party has claimed, and there is no evidence, that materials imported under UN auspices have been diverted from their exclusively civilian purpose. It must also be said that the effort and resources devoted by Hamas to construct this network in order to launch attacks against Israel is unacceptable.