UNRWA rebuts claims made by The Australian newspaper

10 February 2009

February 2009

The following letter from UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness was published in The Australian in response to an article written by Abraham Rabinovich on 6 February.

Dear Sir,

I write to correct the article by Abraham Rabinovich of 6 February headlined “UN backs down on ‘school massacre’ in Gaza”, which is grossly misleading, inaccurate and which makes false claims about the United Nations and United Nations officials. The article infers that the UN’s reporting was misleading and that UN officials failed to “dispel widespread suspicions” about “Israeli culpability” for a “school massacre”, “even though they knew otherwise”. The article refers to an incident on 6 January near the UNRWA school in Jabalia, Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of over forty people. Mr Rabinovich’s assertion could not be further from the truth. All reporting by UNRWA was accurate and consistent and in addition UNRWA has repeatedly called for an independent investigation to establish the definitive facts and accountability for the tragic loss of life.

From the outset UNRWA reported that the attack happened outside the school, while the Israeli authorities initially claimed they were returning fire against militants operating inside the school. But when these Israeli reports were discredited later that same day, they corrected their reporting to state that they were firing at militants operating in the vicinity of the school. The UNRWA statements were accurately reported in many major international media outlets and are a matter of public record.

In his article, Mr Rabinovich has made one serious error on which his argument against the UN rests. He quotes the Director of UNRWA’s Gaza office, John Ging saying that “Those in the school were all families taking refuge”. The problem for Mr Rabinovich is that Mr Ging was not referring to the incident at Jabalia, but to an attack on the UNRWA school at Asma in Gaza City, the night before where three people were indeed killed inside the school compound. The press conference from which Mr Rabinovich quotes, took place in the morning before the Jabalia attack, not afterwards as he leads the readers to believe. We have looked back at the TV footage and this also makes it clear beyond any doubt that Mr Ging was referring to the Asma school attack, as the Jabalia incident had not occurred at that time. Media outlets such as the Associated Press did attribute the quotes correctly and their report is a matter of public record.

Mr Rabinovich in his article draws fully on a report that appeared in the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail making similar allegations. However, the Globe and Mail made the same mistake, assuming that Mr Ging was talking about Jabalia when he was talking about the attack at the UNRWA school at Asma, in Gaza City. This is lazy and unoriginal journalism on two counts: it recycles false reports and Mr Rabinovich could have called the UNRWA press office at any time to check his story. In failing to do so he has misled your readers and made damaging allegations against the UN and it officials.

As for the report of a sister UN agency cited by Mr Rabinovich, he fails to mention that the agency in question correctly reported the facts on the day of the incident and that it was only in a subsequent weekly summary where they made an error (which was corrected without hesitation and as soon as the inconsistency came to light).

In short, Rabinovich committed a three fold error. He got his quotes wrong, he made damaging allegations based on erroneous information and he failed to check or even illicit a response from the organization against which the serious allegations were being made. With full respect for your excellent paper, I politely request a published retraction in addition to the publication of this letter.

Yours Faithfully,

Christopher Gunness
Spokesperson,
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Background Information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 68.2 million.

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