UNRWA demands Israel apologize over Qassam accusation

By The Associated Press and Haaretz Service


Tishrei 18, 5765

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (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 refuted 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.

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.

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, has sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanding the dismissal of Peter Hansen from his position as commissioner-general of UNRWA.

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 documented 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 on network television on Friday night. After the rocket 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.

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.

Hansen told Haaretz that it is easy to prove that the suspicious looking object in the photo is a stretcher. According to Hansen, the image broadcast on television shows two men approaching two ambulances, one of whom is carrying an object that could not weigh more than a few kilos. He said that he had learned from a simple Google search that a Qassam rocket is 1.80 meters long and weighs 50 kilos.

The photographic image, on the other hand, Hansen explained, reveals an object 5 centimeters wide, while the Qassam has a diameter of 17 centimeters. A piece of cloth, he added, was clearly visible in the photo, which proves it was an ambulance stretcher, and naturally, this is what the ambulance crew were carrying. Hansen also said that he is concerned that the IDF's unfounded accusations might lead to incitement, since soldiers who give credence to the IDF statement, may become suspicious of every ambulance that arrives at a checkpoint, putting UNRWA crews in grave danger.

Gillerman has conveyed information about the film to Annan, and to his envoy in the region, Terje Larsen, demanding explanations.

"We will demand an inquiry committee with the authority to reach unequivocal conclusions - maybe even personal conclusions - especially regarding Peter Hansen, the UNRWA envoy in Israel, who for years has expressed anti-Israeli, biased, unrestrained positions and statements," Gillerman told Israel Radio on Sunday.

Several months ago Israel filed a complaint in New York against UNRWA personnel for ignoring the use of UN ambulances by Hamas. The complaint never earned a significant response from the director-general. Israel has also voiced objections about Peter Hansen's conduct, claiming he has consistently adopted a trenchant anti-Israel line. However, this is the first time that Israel is directly and unambiguously demanding Hansen's removal from his UNRWA post.

Hansen, a Danish diplomat, was appointed commissioner-general of UNRWA several years ago, making him one of the most senior officials in the organization.