UNRWA vs the ‘Post’

The Israeli government and local media should send an unequivocal message that Gunness’s boycott call is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate a reputable newspaper.

By
December 7, 2014 22:06
3 minute read.
A palestinian child

A palestinian child sits in a car after her family received food supplies from the UNRWA headquarters in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in this photo from November, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Since its inception in 1932, The Jerusalem Post has striven to provide a platform for a broad range of political opinions. While unabashedly pro-Zionist, the Post regularly features writers with diverse political opinions.

We are open to publishing op-eds in our pages by Palestinians and Israelis from across the political spectrum.

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Barring cases in which a writer incites to violence or justifies the use of violence for the attainment of political goals, there are few, if any, restrictions on freedom of expression in our pages.

It was, therefore, nothing short of astonishing for our editorial staff to discover that the Post had become the target of a boycott campaign due to its purported political bias. That the man spearheading the campaign was none other than Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, only added to the disbelief.

Gunness posted the following statement on his UNRWA Twitter account last week: “Ultra-right@Jerusalem_Post carries anti-UNRWA garbage boycotting me ie no quote.

Ask @Stevelinde y. Boycott the Jpost! don’t read their lies.”

Gunness was referring to an op-ed in the Post by Bassem Eid, founder and director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, that lambasted UNRWA. “The point is to influence donor nations to reform UNRWA and predicate future aid to UNRWA on reasonable conditions,” Eid wrote on December 2.

By singling out the Post for censure, Gunness performed two disservices. First, he betrayed his neutrality as an official employed by a UN humanitarian organization. Second, he called publicly to stifle a media outlet – one of Israel’s oldest and most distinguished – that promotes free speech and a platform for the expression of a diversity of opinions.

“The call to boycott our newspaper by a senior staff member of a UN body is unbecoming,” Post editor-in-chief Steve Linde said. “It is an unacceptable breach of protocol and neutrality he is supposed to uphold.”

In response, a UN spokesman said: “We have been in touch with Chris Gunness, who has made clear that, in his tweets, he was not calling for a boycott against any media outlet but instead was making his objections to a single article that we all find problematic.”

UNRWA is an organization that performs an important function. In Gaza alone, the agency runs some 245 schools serving more than 232,000 students, sustains dozens of medical clinics, and distributes food to many of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents. The US government, UNRWA’s single largest donor, provided the organization with $294 million in 2013 and a total of $5 billion since 1950.

UNRWA has many faults. It is no secret that its employees in Gaza sympathize with Hamas, and Hamas launched attacks at Israel from UNRWA facilities during Operation Protective Edge. But it also serves as a counterweight to Hamas in Gaza.

It has clashed with Hamas authorities in Gaza over the curriculum in UNRWA-run schools, promoting human rights.

As Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh put it in February when the Hamas-UNRWA spat was publicized, “Hamas does not want Palestinian children to learn about civil rights heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. These people were opposed to violence, and therefore their ideology – according to Hamas – is in violation of Palestinian and Islamic culture.”

The conditions under which UNRWA is working are impossible.

The Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, a terrorist movement that stifles freedom of expression, discriminates against Christians, rejects gender equality, and persecutes homosexuals.

We do not hear Gunness speaking out forcefully against these horrible aspects of day-to-day life in Gaza, though we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is doing his best behind the scenes to combat injustices.

What Gunness should not be doing, however, is launching an attack on a media outlet that supports free and open debate as well as a diversity of expression. Perhaps Gunness thinks that by singling out the Post for censure, he will endear himself to Palestinian extremists. He should know, though, that by calling for a boycott against the paper, he is betraying the basic principle of free expression and in the process undermining the very moral foundations that his own organization – UNRWA – is supposed to honor.

The Israeli government and local media should send an unequivocal message that Gunness’s boycott call is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate a reputable newspaper.

A precedent must not be set whereby critique is met with boycott.


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