Monday, October 04, 2004

UNRWA chief Peter Hansen 'sure' Hamas members on payroll (Haaretz)

The Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Peter Hansen on Monday told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he was sure members of the militant Hamas organization were on the payroll in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but that he did not "see that as a crime."

UNRWA distributes aid to the Palestinians in the territories and has frequently been accused by Israel of turning a blind eye to terrorist activity.

"Oh I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime," the CBC web site quoted Hansen as saying.

"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 told the CBC, however, that the UN expects all employees to act with neutrality.

"We demand of our staff, whatever their political persuasion is, that they behave in accordance with UN standards and norms for neutrality," he said.

According to the CBC web site, the Canadian government, which donates some $10 million to UNRWA annually, said it would be "deeply concerned" should Hansen's remarks have been taken in context, and said it "will immediately seek clarification from Mr. Hansen directly and from UN authorities."

UNRWA on Sunday demanded an apology from Israel over accusations that Gaza militants used a UN vehicle to transport a homemade rocket.

The world body sought to refute the charges at a news conference in Gaza on Sunday. It showed what it said was the ambulance seen in footage released by the Israel Defense Forces and presented its driver and rescue workers to reporters.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dan Gilerman has sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanding the dismissal of Peter Hansen from his post.

The letter communicates Israel's claim that Hamas is using UN ambulances as a means of smuggling arms and terrorists through the Gaza Strip.

Last Wednesday the Israel Defense Forces relased footage showing what it said were two men loading a Qassam rocket onto a van bearing a large UN logo.

The photographed images, taken from an unmanned plane in the Jabalya refugee camp, were broadcast Friday night on network television. After the object was loaded, the vehicle left the spot. Army sources say that the IDF avoided firing at the vehicle, as it had done in other instances, fearing that it might be a UN ambulance.

But rescue worker Wahel Ghabayen, 38, said he had run with a stretcher to a school in Jabalya on Friday after he heard that someone there may have been wounded. The wounded boy had already been moved by the time he arrived, he said.

"I came back to the car with the stretcher, and I folded it and threw it inside the car," he said. "If it was a missile, I would not throw it into the car but would put it in carefully."

The director of operations for UNRWA, Lionel Brisson, said UN workers do not carry weapons or armed militants in UN vehicles. "We want an apology from the Israelis, because we didn't commit any wrongdoing," he said.

The blurred black-and-white Israeli video showed three men walking toward the UN vehicle, including one who carried an elongated object. The army said the object was a rocket of the type used by militants to target southern Israel.

UN officials said the object was a stretcher, noting that the man in the footage was carrying it with one hand, a difficult task with a Qassam, which weighs anywhere from 5.5 to 35 kilograms.

UNRWA maintains a fleet of ambulances in the Gaza Strip, which are used for evacuating wounded. UN ambulances have been used before to transport armed Palestinians and weapons. Last May similar scenes were documented by the IDF in Rafah and in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza.