Several days ago, a sandy-haired United Nations spokesman named Christopher Gunness had a moment when, as he explains it, “words cracked under the burden of meaning.” Clad in a tan blazer, he was just about to wrap up an interview with Al Jazeera from an office adorned with a United Nations flag. He felt emotion rising, but suppressed it. “The rights of Palestinians — even their children — are wholesale denied,” he told the news station. “And it’s appalling.”
Then the interview, he thought, was over. Feeling unencumbered from the burdens of representing the United Nations, he allowed his emotion to swell and began to weep.
“My heart simply burst,” he told The Washington Post. “And I assumed in a moment of private anguish they’d turn the camera off.” But they didn’t. Al Jazeera later broadcast the weeping U.N. official.
The clip quickly went viral, spawning dozens of newspaper articles, and seemed to channel a collective sadness over the loss of life in the Gaza Strip. It also represented an unusual display of emotion from an organization that is ostensibly neutral in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But then again, there is little about Chris Gunness or his organization, commonly called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), that is traditional.
Critics from Israeli officials to Middle East experts to local analysts say the U.N. agency, which is internationally funded, serves a one-sided Palestinian narrative that is biased, implicitly anti-Israel and exhaustively emotional. And fueling even greater criticism, it recently discovered rocket caches of unknown provenance in three of its schools.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, has called for spokesman Gunness’s suspension, according to the Algemeiner, a U.S.-based Jewish newspaper. Among other complaints, he accused Gunness of “an ongoing pattern of anti-Israel bias,” adding: “He has abused his position to promote incitement against Israel and present a one-sided view of reality…. UNRWA staff members have repeatedly failed to abide by the UN’s principles of neutrality and impartiality.”
Gunness, for his part, disagreed with such assessments. “We guard our neutrality jealously, and we have a plethora of measures that we take to guard our neutrality,” he told The Post.
But Israel sees it differently. Its trust in UNRWA has sunk so low that it has accused it of handing one cache of discovered rockets over to Hamas. “The rockets were passed on to the government authorities in Gaza, which is Hamas,” one senior official told the Times of Israel. “In other words, UNRWA handed to Hamas rockets that could well be shot at Israel.”
Gunness calls those allegations unsubstantiated: “No one has produced any evidence.”
But evidence of his and his team’s emotional involvement is stitched into their public comments. “Children killed in their sleep,” UNRWA official Pierre Krähenbühl said. “This is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”
Then there’s Gunness’s tweeting. “Imagine being a disabled child @ an UNRWA facility hit by Israeli artillery,” he wrote yesterday. “Weep for the pitilessness of it all RT.” He added, “UNRWA stepping up counseling of deeply traumatized children in #Gaza. My heart is broken for those fragile lives…. There r times when tears speak more eloquently than words. Mine pale [in] insignificance compared with #Gaza’s RT.” And this plaintive dispatch collected 5,000 retweets: “UNRWA is overwhelmed in #Gaza we have reached breaking point, our staff are being killed our shelters overflowing. Where will it end? RT”
Analysts say the ongoing exchanges between the U.N. organization and Israeli authorities highlight a much deeper rift. It begins — and, in a way, ends — with the organization’s name. Although frequently referred to in media accounts, including The Washington Post’s, as the “U.N. Relief and Works Agency,” it’s really the “U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.” And as David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, wrote Thursday, the shorthand implies that the group has worldwide responsibilities, when really it does not.
The responsibilities of UNRWA, to which the United States has granted hundreds of millions of dollars, lie solely with Palestinians. “UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees,” its Web site says. “It has contributed to the welfare and human development of four generations of Palestinian refugees, defined as ‘persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of June 1, 1946 to May 15, 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.’” The group’s humanitarian initiatives helping refugees are legion: one recent situation report says it’s providing for 84,000 Palestinians at 67 shelters, dispensing tuna, bread, blankets and mattresses.
But critics say its definition of a “Palestine refugee” is unduly broad. According to its Web site, it services all “descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children,” which has increased the number of Palestinian refugees it serves from around 650,000 to around 5 million today across the region — meaning that it aids a vast proportion of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents.
“While the agency did not initially seem to consider grandchildren of refugees to be refugees, today all patrilineal descendants are eligible for registration, and people whose connections to refugee status are quite tenuous are eligible for UNRWA services,” found a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This broadened definition has created a robust agency — it employs roughly 30,000 Palestinians — that has seeped into many facets of Gaza life. “Gradually, UNRWA segued from an organization that supplied only emergency relief to one that provided governmental and development services in areas such as education, health, welfare, microfinance, and urban planning,” the Washington Institute report states.
But while it has achieved works of profound good, it has also threatened its neutrality, the report charges. “UNRWA has gradually adopted a distinctively political viewpoint that favors the Palestinian and Arab narrative of events in the Middle East,” it states. “In particular, it seems to favor the strain of Palestinian political thought espoused by those who are intent on a ‘return’ to the land that is now Israel,” which, the report says, “encouraged Palestinians who favor re-fighting long-lost wars.”
It’s still unclear how, exactly, rockets appeared inside the agency’s schools. Gunness told The Post that the schools were closed for the summer, and he called the discovery “unprecedented,” saying, “We’re in new territory here.”
“And I hope in the middle of this war, it’s not the time to dust down this old and frankly cruel idea that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis,” he added. “We’re in the heat of battle. We’re leading the international humanitarian response to one of the greatest displacement crises that Gaza has ever seen.”