As regular readers know, representatives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) featured regularly in the content produced by the BBC during the summer 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas as well as in previous and subsequent reports concerning the Gaza Strip.
UNRWA does not confine its activities to humanitarian work and frequently acts as a political campaigning group, with one focus of its efforts being the issue of the border restrictions imposed by Israel in order to curb Hamas terrorism. Notably, UNRWA’s approach to that issue dovetails with Hamas’ standpoint, as seen in the terrorist organisation’s ceasefire demands made during the 2014 conflict.
The BBC has frequently used its various platforms to amplify UNRWA’s political campaigning on that topic – examples can be seen here, here, here and here. UNRWA employees are also not infrequently given unchallenged airtime to promote their messaging on additional subjects – see examples here and here – and as we know, in 2014 UNRWA’s spokesman (and former BBC employee) Chris Gunness successfully pressured the BBC to get the content of an article about casualty figures in the Gaza Strip amended to be more to his political tastes.
It is hence all the more noteworthy that the BBC has to date ignored a recent UNRWA related story.
On February 23rd the ITIC published a report concerning the election of the chairman of the Hamas-controlled UNRWA staff union to the Hamas political bureau in the Gaza Strip.
“One of the newly-elected members is Dr. Suhail Ahmed Hassan al-Hindi, who holds a PhD from Cairo University (his thesis dealt with improving the conditions of Palestinians teachers under the Israeli “occupation”). Since 2012 he has been the chairman of the UNRWA staff union in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas. […] In addition to his role as union chairman, he is also the principal of the Palestine Boys’ Elementary School, an UNRWA school for refugee children.”
Both Hamas and al Hindi denied that he had been elected to the Hamas political bureau despite reports in the Palestinian media and UNRWA’s Chris Gunness issued a statement saying that the organisation “has neither uncovered nor received evidence to contradict the staff member’s denial that he was elected to political office”.
“…in light of our ongoing independent internal investigation, we had been presented with substantial information from a number of sources, which led us to take the decision this afternoon to suspend Suhail al Hindi, pending the outcome of our investigation,” UNRWA spokeswoman Chris Gunness wrote.”
Although UNRWA’s initial statement claims that “[s]taff members are prohibited from engaging in any political activity which is inconsistent or might adversely reflect upon the independence and impartiality required by their status”, the issue of the connections of UNRWA employees to Hamas is by no means new.
“Elections for the unions of the UNRWA workers in 2009 ran from March 16 to March 24. It was estimated that some 97% of those eligible to vote participated; balloting was held at UNRWA headquarters in Gaza. Once again, Hamas-affiliated candidates won all 11 seats in the teachers’ section, guaranteeing Hamas control of UNRWA schools in Gaza.
Almost immediately, a representative of Hamas in Gaza released a statement, declaring the result an indication of the “enormous support” Hamas enjoys.
Within days, John Ging, [then] UNRWA director of operations, threatened to relieve UNRWA personnel of their positions if they were associated with political parties.
Ging wrote letters to a small number of employees, indicating his concern about a “worrisome” situation. In this letter, he observed that parties “hostile” to UNRWA have advertised the victory in UNRWA elections of certain political candidates over the years, but only now did these statements come from inside Gaza, giving them enhanced credibility. […]
One of the persons who had been mentioned as having been suspended by Ging was Suhail Al-Hindi, who had been elected chairman of the teachers’ section.”
However, UNRWA did not take action against those employees in 2009, its parent organisation the UN remained silent. Al Hindi was briefly suspended by UNRWA on similar grounds in 2011 but reinstated after the UNRWA staff union declared a strike in 243 schools. In the next elections in 2012, Hamas once again received the majority of votes.
Although this latest story has been reported by a variety of local and international media organisations which do not have permanent staff and offices in the Gaza Strip, such as the Times, the BBC – which does have a bureau in Gaza – has to date chosen not to cover it.