Video released by UNRWA on 16 November 2015, showing current situation in Gaza.
Video released by UNRWA on 16 November 2015, showing current situation in Gaza.
A summary of the report by the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry into certain incidents that occurred in the Gaza Strip between 8 July 2014 and 26 August 2014 has been released by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The full report has not been made publicly available.
The key findings of the report are:
The report makes a number of recommendations regarding safety and security (8) and communications and coordination (9). Many of these involve developing operating procedures for dealing with neutrality issues and weapons incidents, and improving coordination between Israel and UNRWA. The report also notes that “UNRWA’s mandate is essentially humanitarian in nature. UNRWA conducts its activities through programmes in education, health, relief and social services. Its staff should not be involved in issues of weaponry, ammunition and unexploded ordnance, nor should it have to collect shrapnel from schools. It requires the further assistance of qualified and experienced personnel, preferably with a military background, to support its staff.” and that “UNRWA international staff and senior local staff should urgently receive counselling to address potential post-traumatic stress disorder. These staff members have gone through very stressful events for a prolonged period of time.”
Since the report is likely to be heavily spun by partisans—already the UN Watch blog is breathlessly emphasizing “UN admits Palestinians fired rockets from UNRWA schools” but notably underplaying the parts where the Israel fired on UN facilities, sometimes without any evidence of proximate militant activity—so readers are urged to read the whole thing and make up their own minds. My own view is that combat operations in Gaza will inevitably result in some UN facilities caught up in hostilities, whether through close firing, misuse of empty installations, mistakes, and/or carelessness. Indeed, perhaps the most striking part of the report is what it doesn’t say: the overwhelming majority of UN facilities in Gaza provided a relatively safe haven for civilians, and were not abused by either Palestinian armed groups or the IDF during the last Gaza war. However, there are sensible things that can be done to further reduce the risks to refugees and UN personnel.
It’s been a cold winter for Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Read more about the current situation at the UNRWA website.
The Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion (#49) on 11-13 September 2014, in the aftermath of the recent war in Gaza. It contains some interesting findings regarding the performance of UNRWA and others during the conflict:
Amongst Gazans who actually experienced the conflict, and who may have used UNRWA shelters or received UN assistance, the approval ratings are high (73.8%), although a significant minority has a negative view. They are also higher in Gaza than for any other actor (unfortunately, no question is asked about the the de facto Hamas government, and it isn’t clear if Gazan respondents understood the “unity government” to include Hamas officials there or the technocratic cabinet in Ramallah).
Interestingly, approval ratings for UNRWA in the West Bank are much lower–possibly indicating a lack of familiarity with what the Agency was doing during the crisis, and/or frustration at the UN’s broader political impotence.
The survey also shows:
You’ll find the full poll results here. The al-Najah University polling unit is fairly reliable, although (in my view) by far the best polling continues to be done by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion also did a survey that included a question on UNRWA’s performance back in late August that showed the Agency enjoyed a 71% approval rating. That being said, I generally don’t find PCPO polling to be very reliable (although in this case their findings accord with those of al-Najah).
On September 11 Human Right Watch issued a detailed report on three incidents of Israeli attacks against UNRWA shelters during the recent Gaza war, at Beit Hanoun, Jabaliya, and Rafah. According to HRW:
Three Israeli attacks that damaged Gaza schools housing displaced people caused numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. In the first in-depth documentation of the violations, Human Rights Watch investigated the three attacks, which occurred on July 24 and 30, and August 3, 2014, and killed 45 people, including 17 children.
“The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage.”
Two of the three attacks Human Rights Watch investigated – in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya – did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate if not otherwise indiscriminate. Unlawful attacks carried out willfully – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes.
Asked about the report, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was critical of the attacks on the UN schools. According to the Jerusalem Post:
“We were horrified by the strikes that hit UNRWA facilities,” Harf said. She emphasized that UNRWA facilities must not be used for military purposes, as some were by Hamas, and that they should not use civilians to shield fighters.
“But also at the same time,” Harf continued, “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. Israeli authorities say they’re investigating. We expect these to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and we’ll continue pushing them to do so.”
Israel has opened an investigation into one of the three attacks, according to the Times of Israel.
On Sunday Ashraq al-Awsat ran an article alleging that the United States had pressed both the Mubarak and Morsi regimes to surrender the Sinai so that it could be used to relocate Palestinian refugees and create a Palestinian state.
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Towards the end of his tenure, ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resisted pressures from Washington to cede Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula to help create a Palestinian state, former senior members of Mubarak’s ruling party told Asharq Al-Awsat.
A former official from the National Democratic Party, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that during the previous decade Washington pushed Cairo to allow large numbers of Palestinians to settle in the Sinai.
The official said Mubarak believed the move was the first step in a process designed to get Egypt to cede its own territory to create a Palestinian state. Egypt’s former president resisted the appeals, which he described as being “in the best interest of Israel,” the senior official maintained.
During a meeting chaired by Mubarak in 2007, the official quoted the former Egyptian president as saying: “Our main enemy is Israel, but we are fighting both the US and Israel. There is pressure on us to open the Rafah crossing for the Palestinians and grant them freedom of residence, particularly in Sinai.”
Mubarak claimed that the aim of the plan was to establish refugee camps on Egyptian territory to accommodate as many Palestinians as possible.
“In a year or two, the issue of Palestinian refugee camps in Sinai will be internationalized. Meanwhile, Israel will impose pressures on the West Bank in order to force large numbers of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt,” the source quoted Mubarak as saying.
Mubarak said that once the Palestinian refugees were on Egyptian soil the UN would have requested “a new Oslo [accord]” in order to establish a Palestinian state stretching from Gaza to Sinai to which Palestinians in diaspora would have been welcome to return.
But the former president opposed the plan, insisting that “Egypt would remain a thorn in the project’s side.”
The same proposal was put forward when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, almost 18 months after the January 25 revolution that toppled Mubarak, a former security official told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Err, no—that certainly didn’t happen. It is likely that the US pressed Egypt to relax restrictions at Rafah, and possibly even to treat Palestinian refugees better. The rest of it is one large fantasy. The only really interesting question is whether anyone in authority in Egypt ever believed it, or whether it is a more recent conspiracy theory born of the current levels of anti-American paranoia in the country (where many continue to believe that Obama is secretly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood).
The IDF today initially claimed that a Hamas mortar round that killed an Israeli child was fired from an UNRWA shelter.
UNRWA strongly denied the claim:
…which was later retracted by the IDF.
The Commissioner-General of UNRWA later commented:
Humanitarian conditions in Gaza remain severe, with more than a quarter of a million people unable to return to damaged or destroyed homes. Most of these are crowded into UN schools serving as temporary emergency shelters.
UNRWA has also released a short video highlighting the devastation:
The IDF has released a series of maps and images depicting incidents where Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters allegedly fired from near (or, in one case, within) UNRWA facilities. According to the accompanying graph, this has occurred some 30 times during the conflict. It is not clear from the IDF presentation what the criteria for proximate fire is—much of urban Gaza, after all, is within 200m of some school or clinic—but the maps certainly show a few cases were launches were adjacent. These firings would represent a very small proportion (about 0.9%) of all rockets fired from Gaza during the conflict.
There has been no suggestion from the IDF that the UN has willingly permitted such actions. UNRWA has no ability to stop what armed groups may do near its buildings or in unoccupied facilities.
During this same period, at least 44 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire at or near UN shelters. To date, nine UNRWA staff have also been killed during the fighting
Contrary to belief in some quarters, firing from and to civilian areas is permitted during combat under international humanitarian law. Indeed, it is characteristic of virtually all urban warfare. However, combatants are not supposed to do so in ways that put civilians at particular risk, and are clearly prohibited from using civilians to shield their activities. Under Article 8.2.b.xxiii of the Statutes of the International Criminal Court, “utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations” constitutes a war crime. Certainly some Hamas and PIJ rocket launches would appear to violate that requirement (quite apart from being a war crime because they are poorly aimed, and fired in the direction of Israeli towns and cities). The ICC currently has no jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territory, which would require either a reference by the United Nations Security Council or Palestinian accession to the Court. Israel is not an ICC signatory, nor is it party to the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.
IHL recognizes that weapons will malfunction and mistakes will be made—warfare, after all, is a chaotic and messy business, in which troops do not always correctly identify targets (evidenced by the frequency with which they fire upon their own side). However commanders are required to take into consideration the precision and reliability of weapons when these are used in proximity to protected persons and sites.
Otherwise protected sites lose their IHL protection when used for military purposes. However, regardless of this, military action in urban areas is always limited by the fundamental requirement that it be discriminate and that the collateral damage inflicted on civilians be proportionate to the military advantage so gained. Firing an artillery barrage in the general vicinity of thousands of civilians and small handful of combatants, for example would likely not meet the IHL requirements for proportionality, nor would attacking a trio of PIJ militants on a motorcycle outside a crowded refugee shelter.
For other PRRN coverage of these issues, see:
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.