Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), has written a strongly-worded protest to Silvan Shalom, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, demanding an apology for allegations made against UNRWA’s ambulance drivers in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s military and its ambassador to the United Nations have alleged that it has footage of a Palestinian rocket being transported in an UNRWA ambulance. An investigation by UNRWA and analysis of the footage has established that the object in question was a patient stretcher.
In the letter, which was sent today, Mr Hansen writes:
“Given the technical means and military expertise at the disposal of the IDF to enlarge and analyse the pictures taken by the IDF drone, it is inconceivable that the IDF could have made this egregiously erroneous allegation in good faith. While UNRWA’s denial has now been acknowledged by responsible media outlets, there is no such denial shown on the IDF website.”
“It is appalling that, with the serious conflict now raging in the Northern Gaza Strip, where UNRWA ambulances are operating in constant danger alongside those of other humanitarian agencies to try to save and transport scores of wounded Palestinians to hospital, the Government of Israel would put out such deliberately inciteful, false and malicious propaganda, encouraging IDF soldiers on the ground (or in the air) to think that UNRWA ambulances and other humanitarian vehicles are transporting terrorists and weapons.”
“Accordingly, I request an immediate public retraction and apology from the Government of Israel and that the apology and retraction be transmitted to all the media outlets who received the film clip in the first instance and be placed on both the IDF and the MFA websites.”
Mr Hansen has repeatedly been made the subject of personally offensive and distorted accusations of bias by the Israeli authorities. UNRWA believes it is noteworthy that the Agency and Peter Hansen have most often been the targets of false allegations following extensive Israeli military operations in the occupied Palestinian territory in which there have been large numbers of Palestinian casualties.
UNRWA asked the IDF on Saturday to provide it with the original footage of the incident to assist the Agency in its own investigation. There has so far been no response to that request.
Response by Commissioner-General Peter Hansen to allegations regarding misuse of a UN vehicle
Given the gravity of the allegation, I immediately ordered my staff to obtain a copy of the footage in question and initiated an investigation into the alleged facts.
On the footage: I have now seen the footage in question. I can confirm it shows one of UNRWA’s ambulances. It then shows three persons walking swiftly towards it. One of these persons is carrying in one hand a light, long and thin object. The person then easily throws the object into the back of the ambulance.
Note: the footage has erased the indication of the date on which it was shot. There is no way of identifying when or where the clip was taken.
On the investigation: UNRWA’s investigation into the facts included interviews with all the ambulance drivers and crews who have been active in the area. I am fully satisfied with the veracity of the testimony given to me by these UNRWA staff members, who have solemnly declared that they have acted in conformity with stringent UN rules of behaviour at all times. I might add that these staff members are carrying out highly dangerous humanitarian work with selfless commitment.
While the quality of the video clip is poor, its analysis shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the object carried and thrown into the vehicle is not / cannot be a Qassam rocket: I have been told that a Qassam rocket weighs at least 32 kilogrammes and that its diameter is approx. 17 cm. On neither count does the object shown in the film correspond in the least to this description: it is much thinner, longer and obviously much lighter than a rocket. In my mind and in that of those whom I have consulted, it is clearly a folded stretcher, a logical and indispensable accessory in any ambulance.
It is not the first time that the Government of Israel has propagated falsehoods against UNRWA: a few months ago, two Cabinet Ministers declared in public that UNRWA ambulances were carrying body parts of fallen Israeli soldiers. When challenged to produce the evidence backing up this claim, or to retract the statement and offer an apology, the Ministers in question were not able to provide any response and have remained silent. In that case too, a thorough investigation was carried out and led to the conclusion that there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that the claim had any basis in fact.
I should like to emphasize in closing that I am concerned that such false allegations can lead to increased aggressive behaviour by Israelis towards the United Nations in general and UN humanitarian staff in particular, and therefore seriously increase the risks which UN personnel face in this zone of violent conflict.