There may be no greater test of the United Nations' vaunted neutrality than to be a Palestinian staffer of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.
UNRWA has 12,000-plus employees in those areas -- where it's the second-largest employer after the Palestinian Authority -- and similar numbers in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In all, more than 99 percent of its staff members are Palestinian. No other U.N. agency boasts such an overwhelming ratio of local to foreign field staff. Nine of 10 UNRWA employees are themselves refugees, according to the agency's definition of a refugee.
UNRWA employees and their families in the Palestinian territories go through everything that society at large endures, which during the intifada meant the self-described "daily humiliations" of restricted movement, material deprivation and Israeli anti-terrorist raids. Nevertheless, UNRWA employees must sign a code of conduct that compels them to avoid actions that "may adversely affect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality which are required by that status."
Realistically, though, some observers ask: Would it be surprising if UNRWA employees were to loathe Israel and embrace the Palestinian cause -- and have it influence their work?
Some of UNRWA's harsher critics speak as if the agency were actively complicit in terrorism, but others say the situation isn't black and white. With lawlessness, intimidation and violence now widespread -- UNRWA itself has relocated some international staff from Gaza to Jerusalem -- Palestinian staff members may simply find it prudent to avert their eyes from the militancy around them.
UNRWA officials note that the U.N. General Assembly never gave the agency policing or intelligence-gathering responsibilities in its camps. Moreover, UNRWA officials say, it could be dangerous to ask too many questions about what's going on around them.
Yet staff certainly can make a difference, said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which takes care of the world's 19 million non-Palestinian refugees.
In some cases, Van Genderen Stort said, UNHCR teams with local military, police or foreign peacekeepers to look out for armed elements stirring up trouble. In other cases, camp residents have established something of a "nightwatch."
"It's not that we have intelligence on the ground or that they're spying on their neighbors, but they know who's in their community and they keep an eye out," said Van Genderen Stort, who recently worked in Liberia's refugee camps. "We, of course, want to help only those who are refugees and in need of help. We don't want to be an agency that helps rebels who go out at night and fight."
When it comes to UNRWA, at least some staffers seem to share their clients' more extreme views. The UNRWA teachers union, for example, reportedly is dominated by members affiliated with Hamas, listed as a terrorist organization in much of the West. Observers have cited numerous instances where suicide bombers and other terrorists were glorified in UNRWA schools, whether through graffiti on school walls or posters in the classrooms. In one incident, Hamas convened a July 2001 conference in an UNRWA junior high school in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp.
"The road to Palestine passes through the blood of the fallen, and these fallen have written history with parts of their flesh and their bodies," UNRWA teacher, Saheil Alhinadi, said in praise of "martyrdom," a euphemism for suicide terrorism.
Former UNRWA chief Peter Hansen got into hot water in October 2004, when he told Canadian television, "I'm sure there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don't see that as a crime. Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant, and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another."
Hansen later explained in an interview that he meant Hamas sympathizers, not members.
"Don't judge people by what you think they may or may not believe," he said. "Judge them by what they do, in their actions and in their behavior. And there we get back to the very strict behavior code we have in the agency for what staff members are to do and not to do in their behavior."
Israel, however, says the question isn't just staff members' political allegiances but, sometimes, their actions. In recent years, Israel has arrested dozens of UNRWA staffers -- 31 from mid-2004 to mid-2005 alone, according to UNRWA -- for alleged involvement in terrorism and other activities. Most are released within days or weeks without charges -- but not all.
Nahed Attalah, an UNRWA official arrested by Israeli forces in 2002, reportedly confessed to using his U.N. travel permit and his UNRWA car to transport terrorists to attack sites and to entering Syria and Lebanon to arrange weapons purchases for terrorist groups.
In August 2002, Israel arrested UNRWA ambulance driver Nidal Abd Al Fatah Abdallah Nazal, whom officials later said confessed to being a Hamas member and using his ambulance to transport arms and messages to Hamas activists.
In 2003, Israel convicted three staffers: A Hamas member got 32 months for having a machine gun and delivering chemicals to a bombmaker, an Islamic Jihad member received two and a half years for possessing materials for possible use in explosives and a third person was sentenced to seven and a half years for shooting a gun and firebombing an Israeli bus.
In May 2004, Israeli television showed gunmen piling into an UNRWA ambulance.
UNRWA officials said it's unfair to tarnish an organization of thousands for the actions of a few. They also claimed the Israeli judicial system is biased, with UNRWA denied access to both detainees and the evidence against them -- so they're skeptical about staff arrests and convictions.
Even a former Israeli diplomat chastised his government's policy of claiming it has a smoking gun that proves UNRWA's terrorist links, then withholding the evidence on grounds of "national security." That fuels speculation that Israel doesn't have the goods, the diplomat said.
"When the U.N. asks for proof and Israel says it's classified, to me that's like not having any evidence at all," the official, who requested anonymity, said in an interview.
The most notorious instance occurred in early October 2004, when Israel announced it had footage of a Kassam rocket being loaded into an UNRWA ambulance. UNRWA asserted that the object in question was a rolled-up stretcher. After further scrutiny, Israel conceded it had blundered -- It was indeed a stretcher. But the incident reflected how, after years of tension with UNRWA, Israel was inclined to believe the worst about the agency.
Even UNRWA leaders, however, admit their camps are heavily militarized.
"Of course I don't condone it, but it's a fact of life," Hansen said of the presence of heavily armed militants at an agency function, according to the Associated Press. "Look around the camp. We can't stop it. We don't have guns."
As Hansen later confided to the Danish paper, Politiken, "Who in this camp dares to speak up against an armed man?"
Though U.N. resolutions require armed elements to steer clear of refugee camps, Karen Koning AbuZayd, an UNRWA official, conceded in an August 2002 Jerusalem Report that expelling gunmen from the camps would be "difficult in this region."
In Gaza and the West Bank, everything is "upside down. The refugees are the armed elements," said AbuZayd, who at the time of the interview was Hansen's deputy and who has now succeeded him.
Then there are instances of Palestinian violence that target UNRWA itself.
Last August, three UNRWA staffers -- two Europeans and a Palestinian -- were kidnapped in the Khan Younis camp in Gaza by what UNRWA described as a "militant group." UNRWA protested, and the staffers were released unharmed later in the day.
Last New Year's Day, Palestinians firebombed the U.N. club in Gaza City, which flies the UNRWA flag and is said to be the only establishment in town that serves alcohol, drawing the ire of Islamic fundamentalists. The club's guard was tied up and beaten.
UNRWA staffers who venture into the fray may risk repercussions.
In April 2004, Israel's assassination of Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantissi sparked an outpouring of emotion among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
According to The Daily Star of Beirut, the UNRWA chief in Lebanon, Richard Cook, ordered his staff to go into agency schools and tear down posters glorifying "martyrdom." Refugee leaders declared Cook persona non grata and reportedly barred him briefly from the camps.
"We have to take the safety of our staff into account," AbuZayd explained to the Jerusalem Report in her 2002 interview. "If we were to ask our staff to do certain things, we realize that would get them into big trouble."
At the very least, the United States expects UNRWA to speak up. Washington is UNRWA's largest donor, providing about 30 percent of the agency's roughly $400 million budget in both 2004 and 2005. Section 301(c) of the 1961 U.S. Foreign Assistance Act compels UNRWA to "take all possible measures to assure that no part of the U.S. contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism."
That pressure to vet seems to make the UNRWA hierarchy squirm.
In a November 2003 report, the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that UNRWA balked at the obligation to report what staff members see and hear, "owing to concerns for its staff's safety" and the "inability to verify beneficiary responses."
UNRWA's lawyers countered with a proposal that staffers not "knowingly" provide assistance to those involved with terrorist activities -- a standard that critics say sets the bar too high, allowing for plausible deniability. But UNRWA's request that Congress clarify the meaning of "all possible measures" is a cop out, said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Committee on International Relations' Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee.
"The representatives of this U.N. agency will argue that they cannot account for their employees' activities, given the large number of Palestinians on their payrolls," Ros-Lehtinen said in an interview. "If they are not exerting oversight over what is taking place in the institutions run by their agency, then the U.S. must exert strict oversight over its contributions to this agency."
UNRWA camps also have seen a slew of "workplace accidents," a euphemism for bombs that explode prematurely as terrorists prepare them.
"We talked to UNRWA about it, that if it happens that's prima facie evidence the person was a terrorist," a State Department official said in an interview. "But UNRWA's lawyer says, 'Well, not really. It's not a terrorist act simply to make a bomb.' We say that's really getting into the weeds legally. We don't know what other purposes they would be constructing a bomb for, and they fall into our definition for what ought to be excluded. UNRWA agreed in the end, and one reason they did, frankly, is we're the biggest donors, and they don't want to get into a spat with us."