Gaza City, Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip — As political confrontations go in these hot days of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising), it was hardly a major incident. A United Nations official encounters Israeli soldiers beating a 10-year old Palestinian. The boy had been caught during a stone-throwing demonstration in the Gaza Strip.
But, instead of remaining uninvolved, the UN official attempts to rescue the youngster. In the process, he gets roughed up himself.
``I usually don't play the role of cop,'' this official, a foreign national, explained later. ``But when a kid is being beaten up you can't just stand by and watch.''
The incident occurred four weeks ago. It is a small but telling sign of the assertive new role now being played by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that for nearly 40 years has quietly been meeting the health, education, and nutrition needs of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugee families.
Today, UNRWA has become a kind of impromptu human-rights monitor, tracking arrests and protesting perceived abuses by Israeli soldiers.
This higher profile since the intifadah began last December is welcomed by Palestinians. They say the agency is the lone line of defense against alleged abuses by the Israeli Army.
But the role has strained already difficult relations with Israel. UNRWA, because of its far-flung network of services, is often described as a kind of surrogate government - with its own agenda, many Israelis say - in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.
``UNRWA has helped to incite the situation,'' one Israeli complains. ``The philosophy underlying the curriculum [of UNRWA's 250 primary and junior high schools in the West Bank and Gaza] is `You are all here temporarily. You will eventually go back to your homes in Israel.'''
``We're like a married couple who hate each other but because of the children we have to stay together,'' one senior UNRWA official says of the agency's uneasy relations with Israel.
UNRWA officials are openly critical of the collective punishments dealt out by the Israeli Defense Forces to crush the seven-month uprising.
``Last month we had no food, no electricity, no water for two weeks,'' complains one UNRWA official at Bureij camp, which was closed down after the head of the village council resigned in response to a demand by the leadership of the Palestinian uprising.
``No one seems to understand that it's the children who are the first victims of the policy.''
For their part, the Israel soldiers resent what they see as unnecessary meddling by UNRWA in essential security operations.
So far, says one UNRWA official in Gaza, no letter protesting cruelty has ever been answered by the Israeli government.
Meanwhile, a new team of mobile UNRWA troubleshooters has been formed since the intifadah, in part to respond to confrontations. Agency officials say the presence of a foreign national usually moderates the behavior of Israeli soldiers.
``I try to get close enough to the soldiers to be seen but not so close to the [Palestinian] kids that I incite more violence,'' says one of the new ``regional affairs officers'' whose unenviable job puts him squarely in the middle of the Arab-Israeli crossfire that has taken more that 200 lives since December.
The official says that most contacts with the soldiers are professional and polite. But during the last two months, there have been increasing incidents of verbal abuse, threats, and, in three recent instances, physical resistance to UNRWA officials who have intervened to stop beatings.
``Personally, I see our role more as one of protection than in terms of relief,'' says this official. ``The fact that kids are getting knocked around, that's what's so hard to get used to.''
Israel has had little real choice but to tolerate the presence of UNRWA, which picks up an annual $100 million tab for its work with 750,000 Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Israel donates $300,000 annually to UNRWA.)
With 7,500 employees in the territories, UNRWA is the second largest employer there after the Israeli civil administration. All but 25 are Palestinians.
Since 1950, UNRWA has provided subsistence levels of sanitation, medical care and relief for Palestinian refugees living in the overcrowded refugee camps and towns in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Roads have been built and houses electrified, but UNRWA has carefully avoided crossing the line between relief and development work.
The reason: Palestinians say improvements that would give the camps a feeling of permanence that would implicitly signal acceptance of the 1948 partition of British-administered Palestine that led to the creation of Israel.
All but 4 percent of UNRWA's income comes from voluntary contributions made by governments, nongovernmental organizations and private individuals. The UN pays the balance.
For many individual Palestinians, UNRWA is said to have become the charity of choice, since dollars to the UN agency guarantee that the intifadah will be nourished at its roots, in the refugee camps where the uprising began.
Since the start of the uprising, several governments have loosened their purse strings to contribute $65 million in emergency contributions.
The United States, on the other hand, has recently trimmed its contribution by $6.5 million - a move that many UNRWA officials see as sending a clear political message to the Palestinians.
``Six million dollars taken from Israel's [US aid contribution of] $3 billion wouldn't have made a dent,'' complains one UNRWA staffer. ``For us it's 10 percent'' of the US contribution of $61 million.
``So much for the US being an honest broker,'' the UNRWA staffer says.
The US, however, remains the largest donor to UNRWA, contributing about 30 percent of its annual budget.