ISM photos taken in the aftermath of UNRWA building shelled by Israeli army in Gaza
© Flickr Commons
ISM photos taken in the aftermath of UNRWA building shelled by Israeli army in Gaza
Last updated: December 23, 2014

Palestinian human rights activist joins Israeli critics of UN agency for refugees

Banner Icon "UNRWA has no right to represent the Palestine refugee diaspora," argues Bassam Eid, a well-known Palestinian activist, in an interview with Your Middle East.

As the 65-year-old United Nations agency charged with providing humanitarian services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants begins to collect international pledges for reconstruction of destroyed homes in Gaza, a Palestinian dissident has joined Israeli critics of UNRWA, charging the agency with failing the Palestinian communities it is tasked to serve while tolerating use of its facilities by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

UNRWA officials and refugee policy experts dispute both claims.

“By allowing Hamas to hide the rockets, when UNRWA knew very well that these will be shot towards Israeli cities and civilians targeting Sderot and Ashqelon. That’s the war crime,” said Bassam Eid who lived for 33 years in the Mascar and Shuafat refugee camps at the northern edge of Jerusalem.

DURING THE 1948 WAR, Eid’s parents fled the coastal plain town of Lydd, today known mainly by its Hebrew name Lod.

“UNRWA has no right to represent the Palestine refugee diaspora. It is now time for the Palestinian refugees to decide for their own future and their own children’s future,” said Eid.

Eid began his career as a reporter for the pro-Jordanian East Jerusalem newspaper Al Nahar and the Hebrew weekly Kol Ha’Ir and spent the early nineties as researcher for the Israeli Human Rights organization B’tzelem and left the group to found his own institute, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in 1996.

The PHRMC issued several reports fiercely critical of the Palestinian Preventative Security Services and Eid shut down the organization last year.

"It is now time for the Palestinian refugees to decide for their own future"

“I closed the organization one year ago due to a lack of funding and because the policy of the organization doesn’t fit with the policy of European, Scandinavian and even the United States governments,” said Eid who spoke to Your Middle East from his home in Jericho.

Eid acknowledges that he now lives on speaker’s fees and honorariums including events with groups campaigning to abolish UNRWA such as David Bedein’s Center for Near East Policy Research.

Bedien made frequent appearances on network television during Operation Protective Edge, butting up against UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunnes in several exchanges over the storage of rockets at the agency’s schools and disputes about Islamist penetration of the curriculum in refugee camps.

THIS MONTH Eid joined Bedien at a forum entitled “Perpetuating Statelessness? UNRWA, Its Activities and Funding” hosted by the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society in London.

“Just because I’m invited to London to share a platform with David Bedien who is calling for the full transfer of the Palestinians it doesn’t mean I support his ideas. Of course I don’t,” said Eid.

“What I am trying to do is get out my own message that Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and UNRWA have kept the conflict going and my people are still suffering.”

“I want UNWRA to declare to the international community and to the donors that Hamas is controlling Gaza and that UNRWA can’t manage its program and should have to close it down until the international community and the donors take measures against what Hamas is doing,” said Eid.

Sami Mshasha, Communications & Arabic Language Spokesperson at UNRWA in Jerusalem, was of a different view: “David Bedien has been so discredited by Jewish and Israeli journalists and has been caught lying so many times, he’s now had to hire a Palestinian to do his bidding,” he said.

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“If the curriculum taught in UNRWA schools is so objectionable, why does Israel allow the same syllabus to be taught in UNRWA schools in east Jerusalem an area that is completely under the control of the Israeli authorities,” added Mshasha.

BEDIEN HAS BEEN forced to retract claims against UNRWA as far back as 2011 when he said the agency was seeking to impose a “Fourth Reich upon the Jews” and that its “raison d’etre” involved “a genocide against the Jews”.

During the Gaza War, UNRWA proactively alerted the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon about the rocket stockpiles and demanded their removal by Hamas.

“These charges of collusion are particularly unfair since it is well known that UNRWA’s international staff in Gaza were subjected to serious intimidation by Hamas,” a senior UN official told Your Middle East.

Riccardo Bocco, a professor of Anthropology and the Sociology of Development at the Graduate Institute in Geneva who has conducted several surveys of the Palestinians served by UNRWA, contends that the organization has a nearly impossible task to provide assistance while the donor countries, Israel and the Arab States have failed to facilitate either the return of refugees or payment of compensation as called for in the original charter establishing the organization in 1949.

"Bedien has been forced to retract claims against UNRWA as far back as 2011"

“We have a non state administration there to provide humanitarian aid wedged in the trap that humanitarian organizations are often caught in,” said Bocco.

“UNRWA is a non political organization, whose actions have political implications, so what happens is that UNRWA directors may continuously recall different teachers, inspect what they do, and try and refrain them from using UNRWA facilities, or using certain textbooks as propaganda tools, but at the same time Hamas, as the PLO did before them see themselves as national resistance organizations so they will do as much as they can to push for their agenda,” said Bocco.

LAST WEEK German and the UK governments moved to transfer $27.2 million in emergency funds for temporary shelter and housing reconstruction for Gaza.

“This is about people providing the tools for people to improve their lives until a political solution to their plight can be found,” said UNRWA’s Sami Mshasha.

“With winter and the rainy season underway, the population in Gaza is increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of reconstruction.”

Jacob Wirtschafter
Jacob is currently based in Cairo with Associated Reporters Abroad, and has covered the Middle East from the Gulf to North Africa. He was the Managing Editor of Syria Direct in Amman, Deputy Bureau Chief for ABC News in Israel, and the Tel Aviv reporter for The Jerusalem Post.
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