As Israel this week waged its bloodiest army operation against Hamas in Gaza and lashed out at the United Nations for alleged complicity with the terrorists, the Sharon administration’s motive for the Gaza disengagement was called into question.
Dov Weissglass, Sharon’s senior adviser, told the Israeli daily Haaretz that “the significance of the disengagement is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.
“Effectively, this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda,” he said. “And all this with authority and permission — all with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.
“The disengagement plan provides the necessary amount of formaldehyde that would ensure there would be no negotiations with the PA. … Sharon could honestly say that we are talking about a plan in which out of the 240,000 settlers, 190,000 would stay put.”
Weissglass claimed Wednesday morning that he was misquoted in Haaretz, but it was still unclear whether he was suggesting that the disengagement plan was designed to freeze the peace process — as some on the left have suggested — or simply was a byproduct of the plan.
Sharon issued a statement saying he supported the international “road map” for peace and initiated the disengagement plan “until such time as [there is] a Palestinian partner who will fulfill all road map commitments.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that despite the comments by Weissglass, “unilateral disengagement is supported by over 70 percent” of Israelis. And he said support for this initiative started before 2001.
“I don’t put credibility into what he said,” Steinberg said. “Sharon spoke of being prepared to make painful concessions” for peace long before he presented his disengagement plan.
Sharon said the disengagement plan was a reaction to the Geneva Accord, a proposal developed by Israelis and Palestinians to establish a Palestinian state on the entire West Bank and Gaza and divide Jerusalem in return for an end to all Palestinian violence.
“Even if there were no Geneva proposal, the unilateral process might have gone ahead more quickly with another prime minister,” Steinberg said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Weissglass comments “as first reported are incomprehensible and … and potentially very damaging. I hope he will further clarify them to put this matter fully to rest.”
Israel’s running battle with the United Nations intensified this week as it lashed out at a senior UN official who admitted hiring Hamas members. Israel also announced the arrest of 13 Palestinian UN employees on terrorism-related charges.
“The passivity of Israel’s approach to the information war, which has dominated Israeli policy for the last 20 years, is over,” Steinberg said. “This is an important change. It puts [the United Nations] and the international community on notice that Israel is not simply going to take the political war lying on its back.”
Daniel Gillerman, Israel’s UN ambassador, told The Jewish Week that he had asked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to investigate these and other Israeli complaints against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Annan dispatched a four-member team to Israel Tuesday to look into the allegations.
“The UN has too often in recent years been at the center of controversy and bias when it comes to the conflict in the Middle East and the war against terror,” Gillerman said. “The UN has too often been in places where it should not be and it has been part of very negative developments.”
All of this happened as Israel moved hundreds of troops into the northern Gaza Strip in an effort to halt further Palestinian Kassam rocket attacks on the nearby Israeli community of Sderot, which lies within Israel proper. The action followed such an attack last week that killed two Israeli children aged 2 and 4.
Since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in 2000, Israel reported that there have been 313 Kassam rocket attacks, 81 within the Gaza Strip and 230 aimed at Israeli towns within the Green Line that have killed four Israelis and injured 34 others.
Israel’s massive Gaza operation, dubbed Operation Days of Penitence, killed at least 81 Palestinians, 24 of whom the UN said were children. Sharon said the assault would continue until Israel was assured that Kassam rocket attacks against its cities would cease.
The attack on the UN came as the United States vetoed an Algerian-sponsored resolution in the Security Council that called on Israel to immediately halt its Gaza offensive. Eleven nations voted in favor of the resolution; Britain, Germany and Romania abstained.
John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the resolution was “lopsided and unbalanced.”
Gillerman said “it did not even mention the murder of Israeli children as a result of Kassam rockets on Sderot.”
“The main problem we are facing in the United Nations is a totally new standard of hypocrisy, of duplicity and of double standards which constantly accuse the defender of terror rather than the terrorists themselves,” he said.
Regarding allegations of UN complicity with terrorist organizations against Israel, Gillerman said the UN was “present when three Israeli soldiers were abducted in southern Lebanon [in October 2000]. It was present when a UN ambulance whisked away terrorists who blew up an Israeli armored personnel carrier and killed seven Israeli soldiers. It accused Israel of a massacre in Jenin, which then turned out to be totally false.”
Gillerman said that what may be “the height” of such apparent collusion came this week with an admission by Peter Hansen, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, that he is “sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll.”
“I don’t see that as a crime,” Hansen told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
But Gillerman countered that “Hamas is one of the cruelest and extreme terrorist organizations in the world. Together with al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and others, it is threatening the welfare of the world. It has been recognized as a terror organization by Canada, by the United States, by the European Union. It has been outlawed by these countries, who make no distinction between its military wing and its political wing.”
Gillerman said that to have a “top official of the UN claiming that the UN is actually employing these people and having them on its payroll means that many of them could very well be terrorists.”
Fred Eckhard, a spokesman for Annan, said in response to reporters’ questions, “We don’t hire terrorists.”
He said the United Nations does not ask prospective employees about their political affiliations and that it requires them to act appropriately. Should they be found engaging in any illegal activities, Eckhard said, “disciplinary and legal action” would be taken against them.
Another UN official said in an interview that Hansen meant to say that some UNRWA employees might be “sympathizers, not members” of Hamas.
“There are 8,000 Palestinian staff working in Gaza, and it would not be a stretch to say that they reflect the general political affiliation in Gaza,” the official said. “That is different from being a member of a terrorist organization.”
But given the past allegations against UNRWA, Israeli and Jewish leaders were not so quick to dismiss Hansen’s comment as a slip of the tongue.
Malcolm Hoenlein said by phone from Israel that the idea that UNRWA was employing Hamas members “is just outrageous.”
“There has been a long record of UNRWA involvement with people who engage in terrorism,” he said.
On Tuesday Yisrael Ziv, chief of operations of the Israel Defense Forces, announced the arrests of 13 Palestinians employed by UNRWA for “exploiting the organization’s vehicles in order to support terror-related activities.”
Gillerman said they were apprehended “over the course of the year, and sometimes more than that, and a great portion of them have been indicted.”
Stefan Dujarric, Eckhard’s assistant, said he was unaware of the arrests this week. Other UN officials were quoted as saying that they were aware that Israel had arrested or detained 34 UNRWA personnel in a little over a year.
Gillerman met Monday with Annan to discuss Hansen’s statement and an Israeli video that Israeli officials at first said showed Palestinians loading a Kassam rocket or an anti-tank missile into an UNRWA ambulance in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza.
After an UNRWA ambulance driver appeared at a press conference to say he was the man in the video and that he was carrying a stretcher, not a rocket, Israeli officials said they would take a closer look at the tape.
But Ziv told reporters that rather than dealing with the object being placed into the ambulance, the focus should be on the “context.” He said the video showed Palestinian terrorists preparing landmines that were large enough to destroy tanks.
“The UN vans are providing cover for combatants planning bombs,” Ziv said.
Annan told Gillerman that the mission of the UN team that was headed to Israel to review UN operations in the Middle East will investigate Israel’s allegations about the 13 Palestinian UN workers and their possible engagement in terror-related activities, according to Dujarric.
“We take these charges very seriously,” Dujarric said. “There have been complaints in the past, but we have never been able to get hard evidence from Israeli authorities. We would not tolerate terrorist or criminal activities from our staff.”
The IDF Web site, however, carries a picture broadcast on Israel television last May that shows an armed Palestinian boarding an UNRWA ambulance. The Web site said the picture was taken in Gaza “on the first night the first APC [armored personnel carrier] was exploded.”
“The reporter stressed that this was not a Palestinian Red Cross ambulance, known to have transported Palestinians since the outbreak of events, but rather a supposedly neutral ambulance of the UN,” the IDF site said.
Gillerman said he hoped the UN inspection team “will have a very wide mandate to look into the full spectrum of what we regard as a very alarming, disturbing phenomenon.”