Rothman: UNRWA a ‘launching pad for rocket attacks’
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Rothman: UNRWA a ‘launching pad for rocket attacks’

Resolution calls for increased transparency

Rep. Steve Rothman wants to ensure that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is not promoting what he calls “terrorist narratives.”

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Rep. Steve Rothman

To that end, he introduced a resolution in the House last week calling for increased transparency within UNRWA, beginning with its educational materials.

The United States and the European Union are the largest donors to UNRWA, according to the group’s records, and Rothman said the organization must be held accountable in light of accusations that it has provided assistance to Palestinian terrorists. The United States contributes more than $3.4 billion annually to UNRWA, he said.

“We certainly want to make sure that United States taxpayer dollars are not being passed along from UNRWA to Hamas or any other terrorist groups,” Rothman (D-9) told The Jewish Standard last week.

“We know that local Palestinian textbooks used in Gaza regularly include virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic material,” Rothman said. “What we’re seeking to know is whether UNRWA is using any of those materials in its schools.”

The first step in that process is for UNRWA to make public its textbooks and other teaching materials, he said. The resolution also calls for the organization to begin using name-recognition software to discover terrorism-linked individuals in its employ. The resolution cites the example of Awad al-Qiqi, the former top Islamic Jihad bomb-maker killed in an Israeli strike last year. Rothman said Congress later learned that al-Qiqi was headmaster at an UNRWA school in Gaza. Similarly, Said Sayyam, the Hamas minister of interior and civil affairs, was a teacher in UNRWA schools in Gaza for 23 years.

Rothman first introduced the resolution in September, but in light of the presidential election, the economic crisis, and ensuing bailout, it never advanced. He hopes this identical version will pass out of the House by the end of the year. To date, it has attracted seven cosponsors, including Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5). Calls to Garrett for comment were not immediately returned.

James Lindsay, Aufzien fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, praised the suggestion of making UNRWA’s educational materials public. In a paper last month for the Washington Institute, “Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN’s Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees,” Lindsay examined UNRWA’s role as an aid organization, accusations that it has become politicized, and how to reform the agency.

During a phone interview on Wednesday, Lindsay dismissed accusations that UNRWA has directly funneled money or supplies to Hamas or other terror organizations. But, he said, the organization “has no real interest in trying to ferret out Hamas supporters in its staff.”

UNRWA reportedly employs 27,500 people. The organization cannot control what its employees do with their salaries, Lindsay said. For example, UNRWA has limited options if an employee uses a paycheck to make a donation to Hamas. By definition, UNRWA is an apolitical organization that solely delivers aid.

“In UNRWA, being a member of Hamas is not a problem,” he said. “To be a problem for UNRWA, it has to be established that you actually did something, i.e., committed a crime or spoke out politically. The difficulty with that standard is it’s difficult to prove.”

From 2002 until 2007, Lindsay served as legal adviser and general counsel to UNRWA, overseeing all of the organization’s legal activities, including aid contracts and relations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Arab countries that host refugees.

“The difficulty with UNRWA vis-à-vis the Israelis is they have taken a hostile political stance toward Israel,” he said.

The rockets fired at Israel from Gaza are “an open-and-shut war crime,” he said. When Israeli retaliation kills civilians, drawing UNRWA condemnation, the intent to harm civilians is not as evident as that of Hamas.

“You can kill civilians as long as that’s not your intent,” he said. “If your intent is to kill combatants and some civilians are killed also, that’s not a war crime.”

Because UNRWA condemns Israel for its retaliation but not Hamas for its attacks, the organization has been accused of taking sides. “The problem for the Israelis is that UNRWA does a lot of good,” Lindsay said.

Israel appreciates the humanitarian aid UNRWA provides to the Palestinians because it doesn’t want to see civilians starving, according to Lindsay. But UNRWA also speaks out against Israeli policies, such as the Gaza blockade and thus seemingly takes a political mechanism.

“This is not UNRWA’s function,” Lindsay said. “UNRWA’s function should be humanitarian assistance.”

UNRWA is both part of the problem and part of the solution, Lindsay said. It provides necessary services such as health care and education to a population that requires them, but it is not moving as quickly as it should to end its responsibilities. He pointed to the 1.8 Palestinian refugees living in Jordan as citizens who should be declassified as refugees. In Syria, the government has all but made the refugees citizens, restricting only a handful of rights in order to keep them classified as refugees.

Lindsay would like to see UNRWA begin to remove certain Palestinians from their refugee status, beginning with the almost 2 million Palestinians who have Jordanian citizenship. If the refugees live in areas where a government is in place, they are technically no longer refugees, he said. According to UNRWA’s numbers, Palestinian refugees, including their descendants, number 4.5 million today. Many Palestinians consider being a refugee just a classification rather than assigning any real meaning to the term, Lindsay added.

“In many ways UNRWA has resettled the refugees,” he said. “They’re still called refugees, but they’re not refugees anymore.”

On Thursday, Rothman’s office was expected to submit a letter, co-authored with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for her to enforce the terms of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. According to that legislation, no contributions to UNRWA shall be used to support any individual or organizations involved in terrorism.

According to Lindsay, that law has not been uniformly enforced.

The letter also alleges that UNRWA has provided financial assistance to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and its “schools are used as launching pads for rocket attacks against Israel.”

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