A resolution (H.Con. Res. 29) was presented on January 28, 2009 to the US House of Representatives that targets UNRWA, and associates the UN agency with terrorism. Protest the anti-UNRWA resolution.
Then this week Hamas was accused of stealing aid from UNRWA on two occasions. The story of a Hamas raid on an UNRWA warehouse has been widely reported in the US. The February 5, 2009 headline in the New York Times reads: "Agency Says Hamas Took Aid Intended for the Needy." A second incident on the evening of Feb 5 has resulted in UNRWA suspending its aid to Gaza. A press release on the UNRWA website states: "10 truckloads of flour and rice were taken from the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza. They had been imported from Egypt for collection by UNRWA today. The food was taken away by trucks contracted by the Ministry of Social Affairs. . . . UNRWA’s suspension of imports will remain in effect until the aid is returned and the Agency is given credible assurances from the Hamas government in Gaza that there will be no repeat of these thefts."
UNRWA plays a vital role in the Gaza Strip and its activities are crucial to the relief and reconstruction efforts. The suspension of imports by UNRWA will cause additional hardships to the residents of Gaza. Whatever the political justification offered, these Hamas actions risk alienating not only the UN agency, but also other international aid agencies. Rather than build on the massive international support for Palestinians in Gaza during the last month, Hamas has provided Israel with an opportunity to claim again that it is a terrorist organization that resorts to thuggish tactics to achieve its political goals. Even if one dismisses the assertions of Israeli officials, such as Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, who, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, "told Israel Radio that theft of humanitarian aid exposes the true face of Hamas," one cannot dismiss the damaging effects of UNRWA's suspension of deliveries.
That said, it is crucial to understand the complicated position of UNRWA, which operates as a quasi-state entity in the Gaza Strip, providing services and assistance to registered Palestinian refugees. Because the mandate of UNRWA is limited to the refugee population, non-refugees are not eligible for the aid that it provides. The limitations create a two-tier situation throughout the occupied terrorities, further fracturing the population, which is already divided geographically (West Bankers, Jerusalemites, Israeli Palestinians, and Gazans). In moments of dire crisis, such as that which prevails at present, UNRWA's limited mandate creates tensions between those Palestinians who can receive aid (i.e. registered refugees) and those who cannot (i.e the non-refugee population).
Furthermore, UNRWA is politically neutral, but Israel has targeted its facilities. An UNRWA press release notes: "According to preliminary reports . . . a total of 53 UNRWA installations, mainly schools, were damaged during the 22 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip. The IDF had been supplied with the GPS coordinates of every UNRWA installation in Gaza, moreover all UN installations are clearly marked with UN insignia visible both day and night." Israel clearly does not recognize the neutrality of UNRWA, yet UNRWA consistently asserts its neutrality in relation to Palestinian politics, refusing to align or coordinate with political forces on the ground.
These conditions have long been a feature of UNRWA operational constraints in the occupied territories and puts UNRWA employees and officials in an extremely difficult position, especially in the wake of the Israeli targeting of UNRWA warehouses and schools.
Hamas' actions can't be justified, but they are in part the result of a dire aid situation in which Israel and Egypt continue to curtail the flow of relief supplies that can be distributed more generally by Hamas. Israel and the US attempted to eradicate Hamas first by inciting Fatah to start a civil war in June 2007 (see David Rose, "The Gaza Bombshell," Vanity Fair (April 2008), then by imposing an 18-month blocake on Gaza, and last month by assaulting the entire ppopulation. Now, they are doing the same by controling relief and reconstruction aid, contributing further to the humanitarian and political crisis in the Gaza Strip.