Washington — The rumor spread quickly on news websites and social media during the third week of the recent Gaza war: Three Israeli soldiers had been killed when, according to the report, they discovered a booby-trapped Hamas tunnel right under a medical facility run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
It could have been a devastating blow for the already beleaguered international agency, had it been true.
But it was the Israel Defense Forces that stepped in to stop the rumor and deny its veracity. An officer on the ground even called up UNRWA headquarters to alert the agency to the claims and to ensure that its officials were prepared to respond.
That might seem counterintuitive at first sight. UNRWA and the IDF have just gone through the toughest stretch in their relationship. During the days of fighting, Israeli forces broke with international rules and bombed UNRWA buildings time and again, killing dozens of civilians. And caches of Hamas weapons were found in some of the U.N. agency’s facilities, which are supposed to be neutral and demilitarized.
But even at this low point, as each side hurled accusations at the other, Israel and the U.N. continued to nurture their decades-long relationship. UNRWA closely coordinated its work with Israel’s military. And Israel still enjoyed the peace and quiet of knowing that an international agency was taking care of the health care, education and employment needs of many of the Palestinians for which Israel would otherwise be held responsible as Gaza’s ruler under international law.
“I’m sure it does surprise people to learn that we have a good relationship with the Israeli army,” UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said in an August 1 phone interview from his office in Jerusalem. An Israeli defense official who was not authorized to speak on record agreed, noting that “more often than not, we get along just fine” with the U.N. agency.
This mutual agreement was particularly striking given its context. Just two days earlier, Gunness had condemned “in the strongest possible terms” Israel’s July 29 bombing of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School, a U.N.-designated shelter, calling the action, which left 15 civilians dead, a “serious violation of international law by Israeli forces.”
Interviewed on Al-Jazeera, Gunness broke down in tears in front of the camera after describing the killing. In an official statement, Gunness noted that children were killed “as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom.” He described the episode as “an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame.”
Later, an IDF official, speaking on Israel’s behalf, told The New York Times that “Hamas people were shooting at” Israeli soldiers from a spot near the school. But Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the IDF’s spokesman, was unable to identify for the Times any location from where the Hamas gunmen had been shooting, and Times reporters could find no sign of any gunfire that took place nearby.
Even before the latest Gaza flare-up, the agency had come under frequent fire from lawmakers and critics in the United States. And it will no doubt face more questions now, due to the perception that its carelessness or animosity toward Israel helped Hamas hide weapons that were used against Israeli civilians and soldiers.
In three separate cases, rockets and ammunition were discovered inside UNRWA facilities, raising concern that Hamas was abusing the U.N. facilities’ protected status. But in each case, it was UNRWA itself that discovered the caches and acted. In the first case, UNRWA alerted local police authorities; in the second it cordoned off the site, and when the third cache of Hamas weapons was found, the U.N. sent munitions experts to Gaza to remove the rockets.
UNRWA claimed that the schools in question had been “mothballed” for summer vacation and that it had no way of blocking Hamas from entering the schoolyard and using it to hide weapons. But this explanation, presented both to Israelis and to American officials and lawmakers, did little to quash criticism of the agency.