When 20 rockets were discovered last week in a U.N.-funded school in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was quick to condemn the storage of weapons of war in a building meant to educate children.
But rather than turn them over to a third party, or arrange for their disposal, the agency, known as UNRWA, handed them over to the local police force, which was established by Hamas, and is believed to be under the militant group’s control. In other words, the supposedly neutral agency may have given weapons to one of the combatants in a conflict that has claimed more than 360 lives in the past two weeks.
“We are examining what happened with these rockets. If UNRWA did pass it to Hamas it strongly harms [UNRWA’s] credibility and impartiality,” an Israeli official told The Daily Beast.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told The Daily Beast on Sunday that after finding the rockets on July 17 in a vacant UNRWA school in Gaza, the organization contacted the local police bomb squad, which came and took the rockets away. Gunness said he didn’t see an issue with the handover, because the local authorities who took control of the rockets reported to the Palestinian government in Ramallah, not to Hamas, which heads the government and runs the police force in Gaza.
“According to longstanding UN practice in UN humanitarian operations worldwide, incidents involving unexploded ordnance that could endanger beneficiaries and staff are referred to the local authorities,” Gunness told The Daily Beast in a statement. “Local authorities fall under the government of national consensus in Ramallah. They pledged to pass a message to all parties not to violate UNRWA neutrality.”
The dispute over the rockets comes as the fighting in Gaza entered its deadliest day. A Sunday offensive by the Israelis on the Al Shejaiya neighborhood killed 60 people and injured another 400, according to Palestinian estimates. The Israelis lost 13 soldiers, and reportedly had a 14th captured by Hamas’ Qassam Brigades.
Hamas, which is designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, has been lobbing hundreds of rockets into Israel over the past week. In response, Israel has launched an ongoing air and ground campaign to destroy Hamas rocket capabilities and smuggling tunnels. Hamas stands accused of using international facilities in its attacks because such facilities are seen to be less vulnerable to Israeli strikes.
Israel, for its part, seems at times unable to distinguish between civilian and military targets—killing dozens of women, children, and the elderly in the process. Last week, for example, Israeli forces bombarded a beach where boys were playing soccer. Four children under the age of 15 were slain.
UNRWA, which operates dozens of schools in Gaza, is obligated to be neutral in the conflict, but the Israeli government has long accused the agency, especially its chief spokesman, of pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas bias. Last week, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor called for Gunness to be fired after Gunness encouraged reporters over Twitter to interview a Norwegian expert in Gaza who has expressed support for the 9/11 attacks.
Reached by phone in Barcelona, Spain, Gunness insisted that the local authorities in Gaza report to the Palestinian government in Ramallah, not to Hamas.
“As far as we are concerned, the government that we are dealing with now is the government of national consensus and they have authority over the organization that we dealt with for getting rid of these rockets from our school,” he said. “We handed them over to the relevant authorities, and that organization, as it were, the experts that came and did it, are under the government of national consensus in Ramallah.”
UNRWA had other options, though. The agency isn’t in the ordnance disposal business, of course. But it could have turned the rockets over to a third party. It could have closed off the school until another international organization with ordnance disposal skills secured the area. After the 2009 Israel-Hamas war known as Operation Cast Lead, U.N. agencies collected unexploded ordnance and stored them in a warehouse, and the Israeli Defense Forces picked them up. (Although, to be fair, that operation happened after the fighting was done.)
The fate of the rockets is now unknown. While the Gaza police is almost certainly under Hamas’ sway, it’s an open question to what degree any individual police unit cooperates with Hamas’ irregular army. An Israeli official said the Israeli government is working now to try to confirm that Hamas had taken back the rockets and put them back into circulation.
Israeli officials and experts told The Daily Beast there is no doubt that local authorities in Gaza, including but not limited to the police, are loyal to Hamas. The Israeli Defense Forces have included the Gaza police in their attacks on Hamas in recent days, including an attack on the police cadet academy and an unsuccessful attempt to kill Tayseer al-Batsh, the Hamas police chief in Gaza.
In a statement July 17, UNRWA condemned the storing of rockets in the school and called the incident the “first of its kind” in the Gaza Strip. In November 2012, UNRWA denied claims by the IDF that Hamas was using UNRWA facilities to store and fire rockets.
This video uploaded by the IDF to YouTube in 2009 claims to show Hamas militants firing mortar shells into Israel from a U.N. school in Gaza in October 2007. In 2009, the IDF announced it had killed Hamas militants in an UNRWA school.
On July 14, the IDF tweeted a photo showing what it claims to be a Hamas weapons storage facility steps away from a school and an UNRWA medical facility.
UNRWA has opened an investigation into the rockets found in its school in July but may not release all of its findings. “When our report comes out, we will take a decision on what we will release,” Gunness said.
Josh Block, CEO of The Israel Project, said UNRWA’s actions are tantamount to giving Hamas a green light to store weapons in schools. If the weapons are discovered, Hamas knows it will get them back.
“It’s shocking to see UNRWA handing over weapons to forces that can and will use them to shoot at Israel and kill Israelis and perpetuate this conflict,” he said. “It’s a betrayal of the U.N.’s mission, of the Palestinian people that UNRWA is intended to serve, and calls into question international support for such an entity.”