Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Sokol’

On December 1, the Jerusalem Post published a op ed by Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid regarding UNRWA. Eid, who made a brief reputation years ago as a critic of the Palestinian Authority, has not been considered much of a credible or influential figure in the human rights community for some time.

His op ed was very critical of the Agency:

I live in Jerusalem and was brought up in a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) refugee camp in Shuafat, a refugee camp like 58 other UNRWA refugee camps created for the sole purpose of keep Palestinian Arab people in “temporary” conditions, for 65 years, under the false pretense and specious promise of the “right of return” to pre-1948 villages that do not exist.

As a proud Palestinian, I must take responsible for what will happen to our people.

We can no longer deny our responsibility for the future of our people.

UNRWA, to continue its operation, depends on death and the visual suffering of five million Palestinians who continue to wallow in and around UNRWA facilities.

The more Palestinians suffer, the more power goes to UNRWA, which allows it to raise unchecked humanitarian funds and purchase munitions.

As you can see already, it isn’t a very well-informed piece. Take, for example, the bizarre claim that UNRWA uses donor money to “purchase munitions”—how on earth did that piece of extreme silliness get past a Jerusalem Post editor? It is also not the case that UNRWA promises a “right of return” to refugees. Such a promise, to the extent that it exists, is rooted in international human rights law and UN General Assembly resolutions.

One could go on picking holes in the Eid op ed for some considerable time. However, what was also striking was the extent to which his piece seemed to simply paraphrase points that were made back in October by perennial anti-UNRWA gadfly David Bedein in the right-wing Arutz Sheva news service.

  • Bedein, for example, called upon donors to “predicate assistance to UNRWA on 4 reasonable conditions”—which in the Eid op ed becomes “predicate future aid to UNRWA on reasonable conditions.”
  • Bedein called for donors to “[a]udit all funds which flow to UNRWA, which operates on a 1.2 billion USD budget.’ Eid repeats this almost verbatim: “[a]udit all funds allocated to UNRWA, which operates with a $1.2b. budget.”
  • Bedein proposes to “[i]ntroduce UNHCR standards to UNRWA, to encourage refugee resettlement.” Similarly, Eid proposes to “[i]ntroduce UN High Commissioner for Refugees standards to UNRWA, to encourage permanent refugee resettlement.”
  • Bedein calls upon UNRWA to “[c]ancel the current UNRWA curriculum, which now incorporates principles of Jihad, martyrdom and the right of return.” Sure enough, Eid does the same, calling for the Agency to “[c]ancel the UNRWA war curriculum, based on principles of jihad, martyrdom and right of return by force of arms.”
  • Bedein demands that the Agency “[d]ismiss UNRWA employees affiliated with Hamas, in accordance with laws on the books in the US, the EU, Canada, Australia and the UK.” Eid changes a few words, so this becomes “[d]ismiss UNRWA employees affiliated with Hamas, defined by the donor nations to UNRWA as a terrorist entity.

I suspect that Bedein would be quite flattered by this sort of quasi-plagiarism, since it clearly serves his political purposes. It raises the question, however, of whether there is some sort of deeper relationship between Eid and Bedein, and whether the former has been assisting the latter in his various fraudulent video documentaries about UNRWA (like this one and this one). If so, UNRWA may actually owe the pair of them a paradoxical “thank you,” since the evident malicious distortions in these reports have actually won UNRWA greater sympathy in some donor agencies.

Unfortunately, attention to Eid’s mistakes was temporarily derailed when UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness responded to his piece by appearing to call for a boycott of the Jerusalem Post:

I don’t think that the United Nations ought to get involved in twitter-fights, since they rarely make look you look objective, professional, or neutral. This was no exception, with the tweet causing a prompt, angry response in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere in the Israeli and Jewish media:

What Gunness should not be doing… is launching an attack on a media outlet that supports free and open debate as well as a diversity of expression. Perhaps Gunness thinks that by singling out the Post for censure, he will endear himself to Palestinian extremists. He should know, though, that by calling for a boycott against the paper, he is betraying the basic principle of free expression and in the process undermining the very moral foundations that his own organization – UNRWA – is supposed to honor.

The Israeli government and local media should send an unequivocal message that Gunness’s boycott call is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate a reputable newspaper.

A precedent must not be set whereby critique is met with boycott.

Also riding to Eid’s defence was, of course, was none other than David Bedein.

Also, rather lost in the exchange was Gunness’ observation that the Jerusalem Post had hired as one of its journalists an alleged supporter of the banned Kahane Chai (Kach) terrorist group (and, incidentally, a former Bedein writing partner):

..although, once again, I don’t think that is a fight that ought to be waged by a UN official.

Today things come full circle, with an op ed by Chris Gunness himself in the Jerusalem Post (and kudos to the newspaper for offering him an opportunity to reply). Gunness doesn’t address the “boycott” controversy, but does do an excellent job of refuting some of the accusations levelled at the Agency:

One such criticism focuses on the notion that UNRWA in some sense endorses extremism.

This is an accusation we reject in the strongest possible terms. During the latest Gaza hostilities, it was UNRWA that came out proactively condemning militant groups that had placed rockets in our schools and which we had discovered during our own neutrality inspections. It is little reported, but our staff on the ground has received threats of abductions and violent retribution. As the conflict raged, UNRWA’s commissioner- general condemned the firing of rockets into Israel, not from the comfort of his office in Jerusalem, but from the battle zone itself, inside Gaza.

There is a related argument that UNRWA is in some sense anti-Israel. This is a notion we reject as groundless. Many of our stakeholders support us precisely because we oppose intolerance and discrimination and speak out against them as appropriate. No doubt in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid the appalling violence in Syria and in light of the wholesale denial of rights to Palestinians in Lebanon, maintaining staff neutrality is challenging, yet we take direct ownership of this issue. We have a plethora of procedures and systems in place for ensuring our staff understands why it is important to remain impartial.

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that we pay a heavy price for working in such environments. Eleven UNRWA colleagues lost their lives during the conflict in Gaza, in addition to 14 in Syria since 2011, and one in the West Bank in 2013.

Meanwhile, you hear almost nothing in the media about our proactive programs to promote UN neutrality in the context of an increasingly radicalized Middle East. You rarely hear about thousands of UNRWA education staff members teaching human rights and conflict resolution as part of a discrete curriculum which we developed, promoting values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A related comment is that we allegedly promote the right of return for Palestine refugees in “UNRWA textbooks.” The fact is that we do not promote or prescribe specific political solutions and in reaffirming that the refugees have rights, we stipulate that the only solution to the conflict can be one acceptable to all the parties. As for text books, according to long accepted practice, we use the same books as host governments and local authorities.

This includes the schools administered by the State of Israel in east Jerusalem.

It is also alleged that UNRWA prevents people leaving refugee camps and somehow intentionally perpetuates the problem through the generations, unlike UNHCR, which, as our critics would have it, has a mandate to resettle refugees and never registers through generations. This is erroneous.

UNRWA does not run refugee camps, neither do we prevent people leaving them.

Our human development programs offer an escape from the grind of the camps, and incidentally only one-third of the refugees live in camps, a proportion declining over time thanks in no small part to social mobility nurtured by UNRWA. Moreover, UNHCR also registers children of refugees as refugees where their political plight remains unresolved.

UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status states: “If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition [for refugee status], his dependents are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.”

UNHCR’s Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination makes the same point.

These attacks are based on the notion that if you get rid of UNRWA, you get rid of the refugees. The logic of this runs contrary to international law and refugee best practice.

What perpetuates the refugees as an issue is the political failure to address their plight based on international law and the precepts of justice, in the context of a just and lasting settlement of the Middle East conflict. That is one reason why UNRWA constantly calls on the political players to take meaningful political action. We seek nothing more than our own closure, which will come when the political parties finally resolve the issue for which we were created.

Let us recognize UNRWA for what it is: a UN human development organization providing essential services to an increasingly desperate and perpetually displaced population that lingers in a state of political uncertainty. The United Nations General Assembly, which represents the international community as a whole, established UNRWA for a particular reason, namely to address the needs of Palestine refugees, and the General Assembly continues to renew our mandate in the absence of a just and durable solution of their plight.

Meanwhile, we continue to ask the political actors and the international community to address the future of this population through a just and lasting resolution that provides the dignity and sense of peace that all people deserve. Until that occurs, we will continue in our mission as defined and mandated by the UN General Assembly.

Hopefully that will now serve as the point of departure for a better-informed, less vitriolic, and more productive dialogue on UNRWA, donors, Israel, and the Palestinian refugee issue.

David Bedein of the “Israel Resource News Agency,” the “Center for Near East Policy Research,” and Behind the News in Israel has recently released the trailer for a new video (embedded later in this blog post) that purports to show various nefarious activities underway at a UNRWA summer camp in the West Bank. Given that the trailer is now doing the rounds in the blogosphere, and the full video itself is apparently being screened in a number of places (including Ottawa, Chicago, and Washington DC), it seemed appropriate to take a look.

It also seemed important to have a look given Bedein’s rather dodgy track record.  He has a long history of poorly researched attacks against UNRWA, including drawing analogies between the UN humanitarian agency and the mass slaughter of Jews at Auschwitz. Controversy also arose following the release of an earlier video by Bedein, For the Sake of Nakba, when it was revealed that he had written the script with Samuel (Shmuel) Sokol. Sokol is an apparent supporter of the violent racist group Kahane Chai (Kach), a designated foreign terrorist organization in the US, Canada, and most other Western countries. The top screen capture on the right shows Sokol’s role in writing the script of For the Sake of Nakba (click to enlarge), while the picture below it shows him posing with a weapon in front of  flag emblazoned with the slogan “Kahane tzadek” (“Kahane was right”).

While I haven’t yet seen the full video, the trailer  appears to show several things:

  1. Pictures of UNRWA facilities and background scenes at Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps near Bethlehem. camp. In interviews Bedein seems upset that refugees would erect a giant commemorative gateway to Aida featuring a key that symbolizes former homes within Israel. However, it doesn’t seem particularly surprising to me that refugees would do this (they are refugees, after all), and it has nothing to do with UNRWA which is not responsible for non-Agency installations.
  2. Palestinian kids excited at participating in UNRWA’s summer camps (0:25). Nothing controversial there—indeed, none of them mentions anything political at all.
  3. A street ceremony for a freed Palestinian prisoner (0:37). Although the film clearly tries to imply this is linked to the UNRWA summer camp, it clearly isn’t: even a cursory look at the video shows that the greeting has been organized by the local Fateh organization (hence all the yellow Fateh flags), and not by UNRWA (hence the complete absence of any UN insignia or officials whatsoever). It has nothing to do with UNRWA’s summer camps.
  4. Children playing at a school, and staff face-painting the children with Palestinian flags. While the video claims  ():55) that they are being painted with the “names of the villages they want to go back to,” the two children shown actually have “Palestine” and “Jerusalem” (al-Quds) painted on their faces—neither of which should be particularly controversial, given that for more than a decade the US-sponsored peace process has been all about establishing a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. In any case, given the attachment to villages of origin among refugees, I wouldn’t find some face painting of village names objectionable—after all, everyone acknowledges that refugees were displaced from these locations in 1948. In any case, this does not appear to be an UNRWA school.
  5. Reference to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1:01). It is hardly surprising that refugees make reference to UN resolutions, however—and analysts of the peace process will know that even the Clinton Parameters of December 2000 and the Israeli refugee nonpaper at Taba in January 2001 made references to UNGAR 194 as well. Some of the children here appear to be painting the names of their family’s original villages. However, sources in the area confirm that this is not an UNRWA facility, and these events are not part of UNRWA’s summer camp.
  6. Outdoor activities on the theme of original villages (1:32). This part of the film provides no evidence that this is an UNRWA activity—you will note that none of the children or staff are wearing UNRWA summer camp garb.
  7. A cultural festival with a “right of return” theme (2:03), apparently at Bethlehem University. This is clearly nothing to do with UNRWA at all, although the video tries to imply otherwise.
  8. Interviews with young refugee activists (2:29) at the non-UNRWA event at a non-UNRWA facility. This clearly has nothing at all to do with the Agency, although the video attempts to mislead its audience once again by implying that this is somehow related to an UNRWA summer camp.
  9. A closing picture of an UNRWA building (2:51) in a obvious attempt to once again link UNRWA to the various non-UNRWA activities shown in the video. There’s nothing actually happening at the building, however—indeed, it is clear that unlike the rest of the camp, the Agency’s facilities are free from any sort of political murals, graffiti, or statements.

In short, the video, far from showing the evidence of highly politicized UNRWA summer camps that it claims to show, actually provides evidence of the reverse: unable to find anything amiss in UNRWA’s activities, Bedein has spliced in unrelated events organized by other entities, and tried to imply through editing and narration that they are taking place under United Nations auspices.

In fairness, of course, it should be noted that the analysis above is based solely on the trailer. Perhaps the full video shows something substantive —although if it does, it seems odd indeed that it wasn’t included in the shorter promotional version. If we get hold of a full version, we’ll take a critical but open-minded look.

In the meantime, UNRWA itself has issued a statement noting that had offered to review Bedein’s material for factual accuracy, but the offer was apparently declined:

UNRWA rejects latest accusations by Israeli filmmaker

Statement by UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness

19 September 2011
Jerusalem

UNRWA has reviewed the “trailer” of the latest film by the Israeli filmmaker David Bedein and rejects its allegations. It shows political activities which it claims are taking place in UNRWA facilities but which are not.

For example, it alleges that UNRWA staged an event to celebrate the freeing from Israeli detention of a Palestinian. We reject this.

UNRWA invited Mr Bedein to a meeting on 8 August at which he committed to allowing the Agency to review and comment on his material. Mr Bedein has not honoured this agreement.

UNRWA stands by its robust efforts to promote the highest standards of neutrality. For more details see our neutrality factsheet (PDF).

Indeed, a look at the video trailer suggests why he might not want his material fact-checked….