Officials look to curb OCHA’s West Bank activities

Local UN office allegedly supporting, building illegal structures for Palestinians in Area C of W. Bank.

July 16, 2012 05:24
A settlement in the Jordan Valley [illustrative]

Jordan valley settlement 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Some Israeli officials are weighing punitive measures against a local UN office for allegedly supporting and building illegal structures for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, as well as publishing reports that they believe disseminate faulty data, according to diplomatic sources.

They are considering confiscating equipment as well as restricting the movement of Palestinian employees of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Although OCHA in the occupied Palestinian territories' activities have angered a number of diplomatic and security officials in Israel, at present there does not appear to be a coordinated response against the organization.

The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot, has called on Israeli officials to act as harshly as they can against OCHA’s illegal activity, during conversations he has held on the matter with the Foreign Ministry.

Another diplomatic source said that on a global level, OCHA is an important organization whose role is to coordinate international responses to emergencies and disasters.

“They are the first on the ground in a time of crisis,” the second diplomatic source said.

But OCHA’s local Israeli office, which began as a small operation in 2000 and has since grown significantly, deals with Palestinian issues rather than disaster relief, the second source said.

The Foreign Ministry said in response, “There are many UN organizations that work in the territories and in Gaza. One of them is OCHA. We have a dialogue that continues with this organization.”

OCHA’s Israeli office told The Jerusalem Post that it could not respond at this time.

There was no answer at its New York office.

Last week Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor wrote a letter to Valerie Amos, OCHA under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator. In it he expressed Israel’s concern over OCHA’s activities, as well as its confusion over both the agency’s role and how differs from other UN organizations that also provide relief to the Palestinians.

“I would like to express our concerns over the operations of OCHA in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Prosor said.“Recent years have experienced a major growth in UN presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which now includes thousands of employees – both locals and foreigners – scattered throughout a wide range of bodies and agencies.”

The difference between the agency’s responsibilities and mandates is often unclear, he wrote. “In light of the above – since from the beginning of OCHA’s operations in the PA, 12 years ago, its presence was never officially established – Israel would like to start an open dialogue with OCHA in regard to its status and activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

OCHA’s personnel are registered as part of the UN Development Program, even though the two organizations are separate entities, Prosor wrote. Israel, he said, insists that OCHA be treated as a separate entity.

Prosor asked OCHA to provide Israel with list of its staff and local employees, as well as their locations and job descriptions.

He said that the state wants to see a review of the agency’s main activities in the past two years and its prediction for future activities.

Proso also asked for clarification in regard to the difference between OCHA’s role and that of the UN humanitarian coordinator Maxwell Gaylard, as well as that of other UN bodies which provide assistance to the Palestinians.

The first diplomatic source said that Israel had initially viewed OCHA as an investigatory body that produced reports.

It now sees that it is an operative body that supports unauthorized construction projects for Palestinians and provides aid to Palestinians who build illegal homes.

“They advance projects with international funds that lack permits,” the source said.

In addition, they provide modular illegal housing, the first source said.

The source added that OCHA also failed to seek information from the Defense Ministry for reports that it issues on Area C and has refused in some instances to provide specific details relating to allegations in the reports.

These reports are then used to mislead the international community as to Israel’s actions in the West Bank, which helps those who seek to delegitimize Israel, the source said.

According to the first source, when highlevel international officials such as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet with Israeli leaders, they reference these faulty OCHA reports.

“This action damages the good coordination and open dialogue we have with other UN agencies such as the UN Development Program and the office of the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry,” the source said.

But there is some speculation that the trigger for the tension between Israel and the agency lies with an incident that occurred in March, in which OCHA information officer Kuhlood Badawi tweeted a picture of a Palestinian child covered in blood and falsely claimed she was killed by an IDF strike. Badawi also tweeted the following text along with the photo: “Palestine is bleeding. Another child killed by Israel... Another father carrying his child to a grave in Gaza.”

The picture, it emerged, was published in 2006 by Reuters and was of a Palestinian girl who died in an accident unrelated to Israel.

On July 11 Prosor sent a separate letter to Amos about Badawi, who remains on OCHA’s payroll.

In it, he said that Badawi, both in this incident and others, had “advanced a radical and hateful agenda against the State of Israel, which is complete incongruent with the conduct required for an apolitical UN employee.”

“If your organization wants Israelis to take its assertions of objectivity with any shred of seriousness, it should expedite the investigation and take immediate actions to end Ms. Badawi’s employment with the United Nations,” Prosor wrote.

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