PR: How has UNRWA explained the aerial photos of a UN ambulance that Israel claims was transporting a Qassam rocket?
Aquarone: We can explain this because we have opened an internal investigation into the matter. There is no doubt in our minds that this is indeed one of our ambulances. It has the normal markings, etc. there is no question about that. What we see on the video and what we understand has taken place is that a couple of our ambulance crew had entered a building where they had been told there were casualties, which they were going to pick up. It happens to be their job. When they arrived on the spot, they discovered that another ambulance - probably one from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society - had already picked up the casualties. So they were seen on the film running back to the ambulance to go to the next spot, because that is what they do. They were carrying a folded stretcher.
PR: How has Israel responded to the UNRWA employee’s statement that he was the one caught on film carrying a stretcher?
Aquarone: We don’t know. We haven’t received any direct response from them. We wrote them a fax on Friday asking for a copy of the footage. Of course it is not a very good-quality video and we would like to have as good a copy as we can and we haven’t received a response to that request either. But, we are entirely satisfied with the veracity of our people’s story.
PR: UNRWA head Peter Hansen has demanded an apology. Has Israel responded to this demand in any way?
Aquarone: Not to my knowledge.
PR: Israel has sometimes been hostile towards Hansen in particular and UNRWA in general. Do you think this incident could be tied into that animosity?
Aquarone: The official stance of the government of Israel, as I understand it, is one of support for the humanitarian and human development work that the agency does. As you know, our job in better times, is to ensure the schooling and health of Palestinian refugees and that is the mainstay of our activities even during these troubled times. Only now, we have had to add on huge programs for food and emergency aid and emergency employment. However, [Israeli] Prime Minister Sharon has declared in public - I think it was during the Likud Party conference about a year ago - that he supported the UN’s work, because otherwise it would be up to Israel to pay for it as the occupying power. So I think there is support for the work of UNRWA although that support is not always translated into cooperation on the ground. We have huge problems of access as you know. We try to do our job. We know the refugees need us to do this work and it is not always facilitated on the ground.
PR: Have you had any incidents similar to this one?
Aquarone: Sure. This is certainly not the first time and the Israeli press has mentioned it although they haven’t mentioned the circumstances of the previous cases. In the past year we have had two cases. One case was when an UNRWA ambulance in the Zaytoun [neighborhood] in Gaza was commandeered by gunmen. We protested very strongly to the Palestinian Authority because this is of course completely unacceptable. These gunmen had jumped into an UNRWA ambulance carrying a wounded comrade and threatened our driver at gunpoint and forced him to drive them to the hospital. They entered the hospital but the fellow passed away.
This was a clear case of guns in an UNRWA ambulance but obviously in a manner that had threatened the lives of our own staff.
The Israeli government also accused UNRWA ambulances of carrying the body parts of Israeli soldiers. I think this was in Rafah. You can imagine that we take this kind of allegation very seriously and we immediately asked the Israeli authorities to give us any kind of information or evidence that this had happened - where, why, when, who, any pictures, any testimonies, etc. And they didn’t. On that occasion also, we asked for a retraction with an apology and of course it was not forthcoming.
PR: Do you think that Israel is trying to discredit UNRWA at this time in particular to allow its forces a freer hand in their operations in Gaza?
Aquarone: That is not really for me to say. There are all sorts of theories, which you can imagine colleagues are musing about as to why this is happening now or why at all. And also, why on the basis of such a flimsy story? It is not just us, even people from outside who have seen the film had absolutely no doubt the minute they saw the film that this was not a rocket. It didn’t look at all like a rocket and nobody would throw a rocket into a car in that manner, I don’t think.
It is worrying and it is very distracting for us in this case. We have other work to do and we are concerned. We attempt to have the best possible relations with Israel in everything we do. We need their cooperation to do our job. We need them to help us out to ensure access and to ensure our safety, which is also their responsibility.
We acknowledge their right and their obligation to ensure the safety of their people so we feel very uncomfortable because others are trying to drag us into a conflict when we are not part of this conflict. We are an organization that has been set up in order to alleviate the effects of this conflict. We have a lot of international staff that are hugely committed and impressive in the selfless way in which they do the job at hand. This is also the case with the commissioner general himself.
PR: How much can UNRWA do at present with the situation in Gaza?
Aquarone: The situation is very bad in the entire northern part of the Strip. There are huge numbers of tanks and there is considerable destruction and loss of life. We are trying to bring in food and supplies for those who need it. You can imagine that there is no food coming in or going out at this point. It is very difficult to get into Jabaliya but whenever it opens or whenever there is a possibility, we are automatically the first ones who manage to get in.
This article was originally published October 6, 2004, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s edition: PR reports on the battle to survive in Jabaliya and asks what America might gain from an assassination in Damascus.