U.N. Aid Agency Walking a Tightrope in West Bank, Gaza

Times Staff Writer

Once confined to the task of supplying relief to destitute refugees, U.N. officials in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have taken on a new, controversial role during nine months of unrest--human rights watchdog.

The officials admit that their expanded mission represents a tilt toward the Palestinian side in the anti-Israeli uprising, because it involves observing and sometimes publicly condemning the use of excessive force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. But they contend that their actions fall within the limits of their job as caretakers of Palestinian refugee camps.

“We have literally stood in the middle of difficult situations. We take risks as individuals and as an agency,” said Bernard Mills, a Briton who is director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, in the Gaza Strip. “It seems like the development of a new role.”


Added Robert L. Hopkins, an American who is Mills’ counterpart on the West Bank: “We don’t have a political mandate, we have a humanitarian mandate. But it’s sometimes a difficult situation. We have to cooperate with the Israelis, and we have to cooperate with the Palestinians. We walk a very thin wire.”

The U.N. human rights role has drawn quiet praise from Palestinians and occasionally harsh criticism from Israel, especially when the Israelis sense that the United Nations is broadcasting charges to the media before giving Israel a chance to investigate.

The criticism from U.N. workers comes at a time when the Palestine Liberation Organization is lobbying the world body to send troops to protect Arabs in the occupied territories from Israeli soldiers. The PLO call is considered less of a practical suggestion than part of a diplomatic campaign to pressure Israel to end its crackdown on the Palestinians.

UNRWA was created 40 years ago when thousands of Palestinians either fled or were driven from their homes in the new Israeli state. These refugees and their offspring are now scattered throughout neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, as well as in two Israeli-occupied territories, the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The West Bank and Gaza revolt, or intifada , began last December in Jabaliya, the biggest UNRWA camp here. It has since spread widely among Palestinians, whether refugees or original inhabitants of the occupied areas. A third of the 850,000 West Bank Palestinians and two-thirds of the 650,000 Gazans are categorized as refugees by the United Nations.

During the intifada, U.N. aid officials have occasionally stepped into the middle of melees between Palestinian rock throwers and Israeli troops armed with rifles, night sticks and tear gas. They also have intervened to prevent soldiers from roughing up the mostly youthful protesters. U.N. officials make public statements criticizing Israeli methods of controlling riots and demonstrations and have documented the arbitrary detention and beatings of Palestinian prisoners.


U.N. casualty statistics are considered conservative because the figures are gathered mostly from U.N. clinics. Many of those injured in clashes are treated privately or in hospitals run by the Israeli administration. Still, the most recent U.N. data available show more than 18,000 injured and 260 dead since the intifada began.

Such activities have altered perceptions of the U.N. agency among the rival sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“Things have changed,” contended a leading Palestinian journalist, who noted that the Arabs have in the past been suspicious of the agency as serving Israeli interests. He added: “UNRWA has played an important part in the intifada. It has given food and medical care and channeled donations to refugees and has stood up to military abuses.”

One recent weekend, as a van flying the distinctive, powder-blue U.N. flag ferried visitors around squalid refugee camps here, unscrubbed Arab children flashed little V-for-victory signs with their fingers. Such a greeting for U.N. officials is a new feature on the refugee landscape.

“I think our image has improved tremendously,” said Hopkins. “The Palestinians once looked at us like a staid bureaucracy. People complained they were not getting help. Now they are glad to see an international presence. It has an impact on the way Israeli soldiers behave.”

Official Israeli views of U.N. aid workers are mixed. The agency breaches the on-and-off siege of troublesome refugee camps by delivering food. It also dispenses special rations and money to families of breadwinners killed or imprisoned by the Israelis.

“Any army that besieges a city is not happy to see relief supplies going in,” said a U.N. official in Gaza. “What we do could be seen by some people as helping the intifada.

Criticism by UNRWA of Israel’s handling of the uprising has tarnished the country’s image abroad. Recently, a major newspaper in Britain printed the comments of an unnamed U.N. aid official who said, “The U.N. is worried by what seems to be an escalation of mass punishment and an increased use of firearms, especially against very young children.”


And one high-ranking agency official described himself in an interview, with barely concealed glee, as “the man Israel loves to hate.”

Israeli officials have been upset by recent reports of beatings reported abroad and originating with the U.N. agency here. Israel contends that, normally, U.N. workers submit complaints to the military administrators of the occupied land before going public.

“In my view, many of the U.N. officers have decided to take sides,” said Col. Ranaan Gissin, an Israeli military spokesman. “This is exploited wisely by the leadership of the uprising. They will use anyone who is willing to be used.”

“There has been tension because UNRWA has tried to enter new fields, like observation, criticism,giving money to families who have suffered during the intifada, “ said a senior source in the Israeli military government that administers the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

During the unrest, about 76 U.N. workers have been jailed by Israeli authorities; 35 are still in detention for alleged anti-government activities. Almost all of the 5,000 U.N. aid workers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip are Palestinian.

At the same time, the agency has more than doubled its staff of foreign administrators to 34, in part to expand its new watchdog mission and to handle press inquiries.


On the other hand, Israeli officials in charge of the occupied territories note that the U.N. agency provides services to the refugees that would otherwise be Israel’s responsibility. The agency runs clinics, hospitals and food programs as well as schools for tens of thousands of students. “We and Israel are like a married couple that wants a divorce but can’t because of the children,” said a high-ranking UNRWA official.

The agency’s budget on the West Bank and Gaza Strip totaled $88 million this year and was increased by about $13 million because of the rising refugee population and the added budget strains of the unrest.

The intifada has created other problems for the U.N. agency as well. Some of its 28 refugee camps on the West Bank and Gaza have been put under curfew for more than 100 days in the past nine months. This makes it difficult for doctors to reach clinics, garbage collectors to pick up trash and aid workers to dispense food supplies. All that has taken a toll on health in the camps, U.N. officials said.

The agency’s schools on the West Bank were closed by military order for much of the last school year, and even in Gaza, where they were allowed to operate more normally, they lost about 35% of their classroom time because of strikes and curfews, U.N. officials say.

In July, Israel stopped paying port and forwarding charges for U.N. aid supplies coming into the country, a move that U.N. officials estimate will cost them an extra $1 million a year.

In any case, some U.N. officials think that the intifada is too often understood as primarily an uprising of refugees.

“It’s not the refugee camps where all the trouble is coming from,” Hopkins said. “It’s indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a refugee or not in the current situation.”