What Congress should ask UNRWA on its claims about Gaza
The U.N. agency relied upon as source for the destruction of Gaza should face scrutiny about its claims and alleged coordination with Hamas.
Summary: With so much reliance on UNRWA as a source for the impact of Israel’s war in Gaza, Congress should press the agency on matters such as the portion of Hamas fighters amid the dead and any awareness of terrorist activity.
Congress has a unique opportunity in an upcoming congressional hearing to hold accountable with tough questioning UNRWA, the international agency media outlets rely on for information on the impact of Israel's operations in Gaza. It will be a chance to shed a light on the war as UNRWA skeptics say the agency is unduly representing the situation as part of its charge to provide humanitarian relief and education for youth in Gaza.
Everyone should be concerned about the rising death toll reported in the conflict. A functioning media, however, would be able to put greater scrutiny under UNRWA. With the press in decline and eager to accept the agency’s claims as fact to comply with a growing demand to perceive Israel as the villain in the conflict, especially on the far left, that responsibility will fall to Congress.
As early as November, shortly after Israel began operations in Gaza, an official with UNRWA was quoted as saying the destruction was “unprecedented” as the agency sought nearly $500 million in emergency funds to assist with humanitarian efforts in the war, according to a report at the time in Politico.
The hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which was reported as on its upcoming schedule by Jon Levine at the New York Post, will be a chance to put the agency and its claims under a spotlight, including whether it has been looking the other way on missions of humanitarian aid as Hamas has prepared terrorist activities.
Here are three questions Congress should pose before officials with UNRWA when they'll be on camera and forced to defend their testimony:
1. How many of the more than 22,500 people counted dead in Gaza are Hamas fighters?
So much of the focus on the destruction has been on the numbers of dead in Gaza, which has reached more than 22,500 in recent estimates amid ongoing urban warfare in a densely packed small area. But based on that 22,500 number alone, we don't know what portion are Hamas fighters engaged in conflict with the Israelis.
The media are consistent in posting out the 1,200 killed on Oct. 7 includes hundreds in military uniform. I guess that’s supposed to make those deaths justified even though those fighters didn't instigate an attack.
We don't really get the same consistency when it comes of Gaza dead who are Hamas fighters. One recent estimate from the Israeli Defense Force has the number of fighters killed or captured to be between 8,000 and 9,000. Admittedly, there may be a thin line between militants and civilians, but some characteristics of militants would be participating in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, holding hostages from the attack, coordinating other rocket attacks or firing upon Israeli forces as they operate in Gaza.
The numbers deserve greater scrutiny regardless of the portion that are Hamas fighters. The estimate of 22,500 dead comes from the Gaza health ministry, whose numbers are already in question because as a government agency it reports to Hamas. It includes an explosion from a bombing early in the conflict that was claimed to have been the result of Israel destroying a hospital and killing upwards of 700 people. Evidence now suggests it was nearly parking lot that was hit, the number killed was around a dozen and the culprit was not an Israel attack but a failed Hamas rocket.
Defenders say Gaza health ministries has provided identification for the fatalities, including the first 6,500 that President Biden himself called into question. The numbers, defenders say, are likely an undercount because they reflect only the bodies that made it to the morgue. And yet, I still find the tally unreliable. Anyone can make up a national ID number, especially an autocratic government the doesn't have the transparency of a democratic state and is seeking to drum up sympathy in a conflict.
UNRWA can address the accuracy of the count and the portion of fatalities that represent Hamas fighters because the agency is on the ground. With reports of destructiveness of the campaign coming from the UNRWA, its commitment to the truth on the fatalities would demonstrate the integrity of claims it's making about other aspects of the conflict.
2. How was UNRWA not aware of the massive tunnel system built under Gaza?
The invasion of Gaza has revealed a sophisticated underground tunnel system giving an advantage to Hamas fighters seeking to conduct an attack on Israel and retreat to a maze that could make them hard to target and afford these fighters and their leaders ample opportunity to escape.
At least some of these tunnels are shown to have been built under hospitals and schools. Firstly, these buildings are excellent shields that make any attack by Israel on tunnels underneath look like a war crime. But it's important to keep in mind hospitals and schools have been host to UNRWA workers who are purportedly there for humanitarian purposes, and yet somehow they escaped the notice of the agency.
But it may not just be looking the other way. One report has emerged in the Israeli press indicating a UNRWA teacher was responsible for holding one of the hostages from the Oct. 7 attack for 50 days. The report appears to be uncorroborated at this point. In fact, UNRWA has demanded the journalist delete the tweet because the story is unsubstantiated, but the reporter followed up with an affirmation the former hostage testified he was held by a teacher. Expect the veracity of that report to be fleshed out in the hearing.
The fact that UNRWA was unaware of these tunnels strains credulity, and the possibility it may be participating in holding hostages is downright alarming. It's possible UNRWA is complicit with Hamas by failing to report what was happening. In any event, the agency should have a good explanation when they're hauled before Congress.
3. Why is the humanitarian aid entering Gaza not reaching civilians?
Every week, it seems like new figures emerge about the devastating impact of the war on the people of Gaza. Palestinians are going without power, food and potable water as disease is going without treatment. A new statistic from the Wall Street Journal says that 70 percent of civilian homes are damaged and destroyed (although what qualifies as damage to any particular home isn’t explicitly stated).
Here's another recent statistic about Gaza that would make anyone recoil: Nine out of 10 Palestinians are eating less than one meal a day amid diminishing supplies of food and clean water, with some 13 percent report burning garbage to cook, according to a report last month from the World Food Program.
Critics of the war would have you believe that's because of the blockade Israel has placed on Gaza and the pledge from the Israeli Defense Forces not to let basic necessities like food and water into the territory.
But various reports demonstrate humanitarian aid is flowing into Gaza as a result of a deal brokered on the border with Egypt. An Israeli Defense Force was quoted in response to report as saying if humanitarian groups are concerned about not enough aid in Gaza, they should send more to Gaza.
One issue may well be the process. A recent report in ABC News quotes Democratic senators who visited the scene as calling the inspection process “cumbersome.” But that may be for a good reason. Israel is concerned about outside forces trying to get weapons and materiel through to aid Hamas fighters. In fact, there was concern not long ago about cargo going into Gaza without proper inspection.
So the question is why isn't the aid that’s coming in reaching the vulnerable population in Gaza. If you were to ask the Israeli Defense Force, they would tell you Hamas has been hijacking goods and delivering them to its fighters. That would be consistent with reports about Hamas exploiting aid in other ways, such as using the pipes given to them for water infrastructure to create rockets to shoot into Israel or Hamas fighters embedded in a select number of refugees given permission to head into Egypt. It seems more likely than not Hamas would seek to divert humanitarian aid in the same way.
All of this is being done under the watchful eye of UNRWA under the guise of an independent agency representing an international coalition without any dog in the Israel-Gaza conflict. But the U.N. has overwhelmingly shown hostility to Israel, in addition to being largely indifferent to the Oct. 7 attacks and the hostages that were taken, continuing to call for a ceasefire regardless of the situation on the ground.
UNRWA wouldn't want to displease its superiors by acting in a way that undermines the idea Israel is the aggressor in the conflict. There very well might be a dichotomy between what the agency is seeing and what's it saying. The upcoming congressional hearing would be an excellent way to find out what UNRWA knows and if that's different from what the agency is telling the world about the conflict.
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