Among Jews, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, doesn’t have such a stellar reputation.
In February, it hosted a soccer tournament at a West Bank facility named for a known terrorist.
Last September, the Simon Wiesenthal Center accused UNRWA officials of making derogatory remarks about the Holocaust. UNRWA denied the allegations.
Most egregious, during the Gaza incursion, UNRWA accused Israel of “violations of international law” while remaining silent on the subject of Palestinian rockets fired from schools, playgrounds and mosques.
Could it be the notorious U.N. agency, which is responsible for providing “assistance, protection and advocacy,” according to its Web site, for Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories may be redeeming itself?
U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. is hopeful.
The Pennsylvania Democrat and two other senators just returned from a Middle East tour, visiting six countries, including Israel, as well as the West Bank.
Among the better news he learned on the trip came from UNRWA Director of Operations John Ging.
According to Casey, Ging said Gazan families are starting to place their kids in UNRWA-run schools instead of Hamas-run schools.
“You have a real connection being made with population and UNRWA,” Casey told The Chronicle in an interview Tuesday. “More [families] are relying on that option than going to schools and centers sponsored by Hamas.”
If true, the development is significant because Hamas has historically won favor with the Palestinian population through the social services it offers, including its schools.
But it’s significant for another reason as well: the Holocaust.
Last October, Ging announced that the Holocaust would be taught in the secondary schools in Gaza that UNRWA administers. Hamas denies that the Holocaust occurred, calling lessons about the period a “Zionist plot.”
Casey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, broadly said the trip confirmed that nations in the region are just as concerned as Israeli and U.S. leaders about the threat Iran poses to the Middle East.
“There’s a real recognition that the Iranian regime and the activities of the regime have been a huge threat to the region and will continue to be,” he said.
Casey said there are indications the peace process could be advanced, but he criticized Palestinian officials for moving too slowly to take advantage.
“There are some indications they understand, but too often in the past 18 months the Palestinians have not taken the initiative,” Casey said. “They have sat back as our government has been in friendly [argument] with Israel on some issues.”
He was referring to the recent friction between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over new housing permits in East Jerusalem.
Casey said the delegation was also briefed on the implementation of missile defense systems in Israel, including the Iron Dome, the radar-based tracking system that detects and intercepts short-range incoming rockets.
The Israeli Defense Ministry stated Monday that Iron Dome, reportedly the only system of its kind in the world, has passed its last tests and will be deployed by November. Congress has passed a $205 million grant to procure Iron Dome batteries.
“This is the one of the central elements of the help we (the United States) provide the Israeli defense,” Casey said of the systems. “It’s what threatens the people of Israel every day, if we don’t do a good job on missile defense. So it’s critically important we not only fund these initiatives, but then let the American people know their dollars are helping in a very specific way.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)