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UN sees one side of Arab-Israeli conflict

(New Zealand Herald)

On these pages last week, two contributors associated with the United Nations laid into Israel.

Georgina Newman of the UN Children's Fund recounted harrowing tales of Palestinians in Gaza living at the mercy of the Israelis, the conflict having taken a terrible toll on the children in particular.

Separately, Paul McCann, former spokesman for the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, suggested that Israel plans to lock the residents of Gaza into an overcrowded, squalid prison camp.

Taken at face value, the two articles cannot but leave readers - as obviously intended - angered at past, present and likely future abuses by a warlike nation against a cowering and impoverished victim people.

Two things immediately occurred to me while reading them. The first was the astounding absence of context; the second was that the attacks were coming from representatives of an organisation whose stance on the Israeli-Arab conflict, over decades, has hardly been exemplary.

Reading the articles, one would be forgiven for thinking Israelis have had nothing better to do than bomb or shoot up Palestinian communities. The implication is that Palestinians have, as a result of their benighted circumstances, had no choice but to take up arms against their oppressors.

The story is full of holes. Why no reference to the fact that Gaza has been for years been the planning base and launch pad for hundreds of bomb, mortar and other attacks against Israelis?

And in case we've become hardened to the idea of terrorism, let's remember what it entails: body parts splattered across city streets, infants without limbs, orphaned children maimed for life.

Why have the writers ignored the fact that, far from distancing itself from attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has embraced these groups, failing to honour its commitments to dismantle the terror networks?

There's also no reference to the fact that establishing bomb factories in the midst of civilian neighbourhoods have long been favoured Palestinian extremist tactics.

Why, one wonders, did Newman fail to mention that those same traumatised Palestinian children she writes about have been subjected, through PA media outlets, school textbooks and holiday camps, to programmes inciting violence against Jews and lauding the "martyrdom" of suicide bombings.

Another missing piece: Palestinian leaders have for 10 years been responsible for administering Gaza. During that time, they have squandered millions of dollars in foreign aid - setting up a dozen security agencies, bankrolling propaganda, diverting funds to private bank accounts, buying apartments in Paris.

Then again, taking a one-sided view of the Israeli-Arab conflict is standard operating procedure for the United Nations.

Take UNRWA, for instance. It's not widely realised that the Palestinians are the only group in the world to have their own UN refugee body, most of whose 24,300-plus employees are Palestinians.

Every other group of refugees over the past 55 years - Kurds, Sudanese, Kosovars, Afghans, you name it - have fallen under the protection of the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Set up uniquely and temporarily for Palestinians in 1949, UNRWA is still going strong more than half a century later. While the numbers of refugees from other crises have generally dwindled as people are resettled, repatriated or die, UNRWA defines as Palestinian refugees not only those who lost their homes when Israel was established, but also their descendants.

So more than three generations on, the 500,000-700,000 Palestinian refugees of the late 1940s have today become four million-plus. The PA has since 1994 administered Gaza and its eight refugee camps. Why are the inhabitants still refugees? You may well ask.

Rather than encourage Palestinians to resettle among their fellow Arabs in Jordan or Lebanon - or indeed even in the PA-controlled parts of Gaza and the West Bank - and so escape their "refugee" tag and assume responsibility for their lives, the Arab world, abetted by UNRWA, has actively resisted such a policy.

Maintaining a restless and ever-growing mass of resentful refugees as a weapon against Israel has been a far more effective tactic.

In 1958, a former head of UNRWA admitted as much. "The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem," said Ralph Galloway. "They want to keep it as an open sore"

The broader UN has long been obsessed with the Palestinian issue. In the General Assembly, no one single issue has so dominated deliberations as has "the question of Palestine".

The infamous 1975 "Zionism equals racism" resolution was accompanied by a decision to give a PLO official the status of permanent representative to the UN, and the establishment of a Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.

Observers noted that by setting up such a committee, the UN was making itself party to a conflict between two members - something forbidden by its founding charter.

The UN each year marks November 29 as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It could be called Israel-Bashing Day.

The PLO has a status at the UN unthinkable for any other non-state party. Since 1998, the Palestinian representative has been able to co-sponsor draft resolutions on Mideast peace and has the right to reply.

Then there's the UN's key human rights agency, which meets every northern spring in Geneva and castigates Israel at length, while opening its ranks to, and ignoring the abuses committed by, such regimes as (this year) Zimbabwe, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

"I was not really aware until I came to the United Nations of the extent or the intensity of hostility to [Israel]" former US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick said in 1984. "The analogies drawn between Nazis and Israelis are practically a daily affair at the United Nations. There is a readiness to believe anything about Israel, no matter how outrageous."

With a history like that, I'm not convinced UN agencies or their officials are best placed to give New Zealanders a reasonable and evenhanded assessment of Israel or its policies.

  • Patrick Goodenough, a journalist now based in Auckland, has lived and worked in Jerusalem.

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