The fire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is frying some strange fish on Capitol Hill. On the hook are the United Nations, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which for more than 50 years has provided humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees.
In May, Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat in the House International Relations Committee, complained to the secretary-general that UNRWA was "directly or indirectly complicit in terrorism." UNRWA officials, he wrote, "have ... failed to prevent their camps from becoming centers of terrorist activity." Shortly thereafter, the American Israel Political Action Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobby in the US, asserted that "for more than 50 years Palestinian terrorist infrastructures have been developed in UN-sponsored refugee camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza."
Mortimer Zuckerman, editor in chief of US News and World Report and new chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, weighed in with the finding that "UNRWA is the godfather to all terrorist training schools." He broadened the focus to take in the UN as a whole ("disqualified ... by the depth of its prejudice" and "a dispiriting factor of hate") and Mr. Annan personally.
In April, an Israeli military operation caused what one US official called "terrible destruction" inside the Jenin refugee camp. Mr. Zuckerman rebuked the secretary-general for proposing a fact-finding team for Jenin, an "unprecedented investigation." There were many calls at the time for an international investigation. Mr. Annan instead went along with the US alternative of less intrusive fact-finding. To suggest that Annan is anti-Semitic is absurd; Israel has never done so, although his views on the way to peace differ sharply from the Israeli government.
The fact-finding team's leader was to be Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland and distinguished as an international troubleshooter. Mr. Zuckerman called him Yasser Arafat's "favorite European diplomat." The other two principal members were Sadako Ogata, universally respected as UN high commissioner for refugees, and Cornelio Sommaruga formerly head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). These were, he said, known to him as hostile to Israel.
These and similar charges are remarkable on several counts. For one, a fact-finding mission was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council, led by the US, after Annan received assurances from the Israeli ministers of defense and foreign affairs that Israel would cooperate. The Council's resolution 1405 also called for the lifting of restrictions imposed on the ICRC and UNRWA. The team was canceled when Israel refused to go along.
As for UNRWA, it has been supported mainly by Western countries, with the US the largest contributor unimaginable had there been any suspicion of terrorist connection. One of the indirect beneficiaries of UNRWA's work has, in fact, been Israel. Since 1967, UNRWA has helped provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education for a refugee population that now numbers 1.5 millionliving in towns and camps in the West Bank and Gaza, a burden that Israel would otherwise have borne under international law. Charges now leveled against UNRWA notably have not come from Israel. Last fall, when the UN General Assembly extended the agency's mandate for another year, the Israeli delegate said, "Israel supports the humanitarian work of UNRWA on behalf of Arab refugees and we wish to formally record our appreciation...."
There is much talk about terrorist bases in camps under UNRWA control. But the agency has never been charged with "control" of the people it helps. That was carried out by the Israeli military government in the 25 years after 1967, and then, after 1994, by the Palestinian Authority established in the Oslo Agreement.
It looks like a campaign to reduce, if not end, Kofi Annan's and the UN's engagement in Middle East diplomacy. Discrediting UNRWA and its Danish commissioner-general, Peter Hansen, may be followed by an effort to kill the agency by cutting off US support. Should this happen, it would remove an agency which has given millions of Palestinians hope, a certain stability, and a step toward a better life. It would aggravate the region's deep unrest and complicate further the work of peace.
Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.