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Commentary Last Updated: Feb 18th, 2009 - 01:32:00

Aid for Palestine under attack
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Feb 18, 2009, 00:18

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has had a mandate to assist Palestinian refugees in �Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory� for the past six decades. For many refugees it literally represents a lifeline, providing food, shelter, health care and social services to the needy. It is also responsible for the education of some half-million children.

During Israel�s recent attacks on Gaza, the agency hit the front pages when its schools, ambulances and a food storage warehouse were bombed, causing UNRWA officials to display understandable public outrage.

The agency�s Director of Operations in Gaza John Ging has been particularly outspoken, calling for an investigation into possible war crimes and blasting Israel�s blockade. He has also highlighted Israel�s misuse of white phosphorus.

This is just the sort of talk Israel�s minions in the US can�t stomach. As far as they�re concerned, UN employees should behave like the three wise monkeys -- hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil -- even as they live and work among a population deprived of everything most of us consider essential to life, including freedom.

UNRWA staff members have been killed, its facilities incinerated while tons of donor aid have gone up in smoke, but heaven forbid anyone should criticise the perpetrator. Never mind the corpses of dead children strewn around, the corpses of civilians piling up in the morgues and more than 30,000 newly homeless.

For years, vocal and organised pro-Israel organisations have been targeting UNRWA in an attempt to stem US funding for what they claim is an agency that promotes extremism. They accuse UNRWA of hiring local employees with affiliations to Hamas and other �terrorist� groups, ignoring the fact that every new member of staff is first vetted by the Israeli authorities.

The massively influential pro-Israel US lobby, American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has tried its best to persuade Congress to take up the issue, but nowadays it is reluctant to go head-to-head with the Obama administration, whose recent grant of $13.5 million to UNRWA hasn�t sat well with Israel�s cheerleaders, nostalgic for the Bush era.

Israel itself isn�t quite as enthusiastic, mainly because if UNRWA was ever driven to pack up and leave, as the occupying power, Israel would come under pressure to take over UNRWA�s current role. A new report on the agency written by James G. Lindsay -- UNRWA�s legal advisor from 2002 until 2007, now a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- warns that any shortfall in US funding could be replaced by Iran or other countries that do not have US/Israeli interests at heart.

Instead, Lindsay recommends that the US �should urge UNRWA to limit its public pronouncements to humanitarian issues and leave political speeches to the political echelons of the United Nations.� He further suggests that the US should press UNRWA to disband its ambulance services in the West Bank and Gaza, use only UN-approved textbooks in local schools and withdraw its help from families who support �the criminal acts of their militant members.� Lindsay also recommends that the US should insist on the appointment of UNRWA commissioners who maintain a commitment to US objectives. In other words, UNRWA should morph into a tool of US foreign policy, even though Washington currently provides less than a fifth of the agency�s funding.

Naturally, Lindsay�s comments have gone down like a lead brick with UNRWA officials, who no doubt see it as a betrayal by their former colleague. The agency�s spokesman in occupied Jerusalem, Christopher Guinness, says the report �misrepresents� UNRWA�s work, while Andrew Whitley, the agency�s New York director, characterised it as an unhappy reminder of �the ladies of the Place Pigalle in Paris.�

In fact, it is so ridiculously biased it can�t be taken seriously. Unsurprising, perhaps, when one takes into account Lindsay�s association with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy founded by a former research director for AIPAC, Martin Indyk. Moreover, Lindsay�s wife, Robbie Hare, who is graciously acknowledged in his paper for her input, has not only made aliyah (immigration) to Israel, her daughter has served in the Israeli army. UNRWA might do well to avoid hiring legal advisors with close family ties to enemies of Palestine.

While he had tried hard to inject credibility into his paper by inserting minimal praise of his former employer and using understated UN-type language to expound his criticisms, Lindsay�s core message is anything but benign. He believes the agency�s role is more or less obsolete. He wants it wound down, but not before it reclassifies Palestinian refugees outside the Palestinian territories so that they will no longer be on UNRWA�s books and will, subsequently, have no claim to any right of return. Instead, he wants registered Palestinian refugees to be subsumed into Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian society.

It isn�t enough that Palestinians have been humiliated, imprisoned, starved, bombed and deprived of their land for generations, now Israel�s friends are out to discredit, reduce or remove the only international body they can count on for their very survival.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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