Posted: November 20, 2010 by Rex Brynen in new items and opinion pieces, UNRWA

UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza, John Ging, has been in the US talking to various groups about Palestinian refugees and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly. The trip, partly supported by the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group J-Street, has certainly attracted attention.

Ging’s speech at Columbia University last Sunday was marked by one of the original sponsoring student groups, Just Peace, reluctantly withdrawing its endorsement of the event after it came under pressure from the campus chapter of Hillel. According to the Columbia Spectator:

“There was a lot of back-and-forth. … Discussions went on for about a week,” said Abby Backer, BC ’13 and president of Just Peace. “There just wasn’t time to find a solution. We dissociated ourselves from the event so we wouldn’t have to dissociate ourselves from Hillel.”

Jonah Liben, GS and Israel coordinator for Hillel, said that he would have supported the event if Hillel could control the format, but representatives from Just Peace said they wanted Ging to have the opportunity to deliver an uncensored speech. Backer said she also heard concerns that the conversation might spiral out of control in an unproductive way.

“It’s unfortunate that this event couldn’t happen with Hillel’s name on it,” Liben said—and both he and Backer said that time constraints, and not fundamental disagreements, prevented the two groups from reaching a compromise. Referring to the national Jewish organization that supported Ging’s trip to the United States, where he is visiting a number of campuses, Liben added, “We know that J Street isn’t bringing Ging in to bash Israel, and he tried to contextualize his statements … [but] Ging is a controversial speaker.”

Meanwhile, Ging also gave an interview with Israeli freelance journalist Adi Schwartz, which has popped up in a lot of places in the blogosphere in the last few days:

“We shouldn’t exist after so many years”, says Ging, “and I perfectly understand the Israeli negative view towards my organization, because it is the manifestation of the political failure of the international community to resolve the conflict. Our 60th anniversary was not a moment of celebration but a commemoration of failure because we should not have had to exist after 60 years”.

Why don’t you resettle the refugees?

“This is not our mandate. I am by mandate given for action, not to resolve the conflict. The question of the refugees is an issue that should be decided upon in the negotiations between the parties themselves”.

Gaza is under Palestinian control. Have you tried to initiate a resettlement project there together with Hamas?

“Why would I do that? You are asking me to solve one of the protracted issues of the conflict. This is not our mandate”.

Every reasonable person understands that Israel will never let into its territory 4.8 million Palestinians, because it will stop being the State of the Jewish People. Not settling the refugees is not a neutral act: You thus perpetuate the conflict, and even make it worse, since every day the number of refugees increases.

“UNRWA gets its mandate from the General Assembly. Our mandate is to act, not to solve the conflict”.

Ging also discusses James Lindsey’s 2009 Washington Institute report on UNRWA (which he criticizes), points to UNRWA’s own initiatives in the area of human rights education, and defends UNRWA’s record against charges that it employs known Hamas cadres.

On Tuesday, Ging spoke with Congressional staffers in Washington, and addressed many of the same themes. He is also quoted in the Jerusalem Post as criticizing UNRWA’s New York representative, Andrew Whitley, for comments he recently made on the political feasibility of implementing the refugees’ right of return to Israel:

[Ging] said it was important for those involved in the issue to “embrace some difficult truths,” though he added that didn’t mean UNRWA should weigh in on political issues. He strongly criticized another UNRWA official, Andrew Whitley, outgoing head of UNRWA’s New York Representative Office, for recently saying that rather than vainly waiting to fulfill their “right of return,” Palestinians must start acknowledging that the refugees will almost certainly not be returning to Israel so that they can improve their situation.

“Andrew betrayed his responsibility as a UN official to stay within the parameters of his mandate, which is entirely regretted and regrettable,” Ging said of Whitley’s comments, though he commended him for his “courageous” admission that he erred.

In an interview with The Jewish Week (New York), Ging emphasized that he was no enemy of Israel:

Do you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and how do you feel about the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement?

The last time I was in the States I attended a celebration for Israel’s independence day with the Israelis at the UN. They know I’m pro-Israel. I celebrate Israel’s independence … It’s a concern that those representing themselves as pro-Palestinian are now linking that to anti-Israel sentiment and policies like divestment and boycott. I oppose that … The people of Israel need efforts to rebuild confidence that peace can be brought about. Talking about sanctions and boycotts is not going to bring about anything positive …

Of course, Ging’s comments on the current BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions) campaign were probably outside the parameters of his mandate as a UN official—tricky thing, that particular political tightrope—and soon attracted criticism. Prominent  scholar and commentator As’ad AbuKhalil noted on his widely-read Angry Arab blog that “I have always believed that UNRWA is an enemy of the Palestinian people: here is another evidence.”

One thing that John Ging has been emphasizing throughout his various interviews and talks is that UNRWA is an international agency which needs to operate within a context set by its formal mandate, the available resources, and the practical situation on the ground. It is a point that both critics and supporters of the Agency would do well to remember.

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