Why is Israel taking on OCHA?

It’s strange that, as Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz on 15 July, Israel is now taking on UN OCHA — the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

    Ravid’s story reported that “The Foreign Ministry and Israel Defense Forces are considering imposing sanctions against a UN agency in the West Bank and Gaza following allegations that agency employees have engaged in illegal activity such as illegal construction. As senior officials in Jerusalem put it, Israel wants to ‘reassess’ the role in the West Bank of the agency, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The two options under consideration are limiting the issuing of visas to OCHA employees and rescinding work and travel permits to local residents who work for OCHA”.

This report comes just days after reports that Major-General Nitzan Alon of the IDF Central Command signed a new order authorizing the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s Oz Immigration enforcement unit to go anywhere it wants in the West Bank to seize international “infiltrators” who may have overstayed a tourist visa, or working “illegally” there. Those detained will be brought into Israel, and taken to holding facilities pending their deportation. This order contradicting previous explicit Israeli court decisions that the Oz unit should not function in Area A of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority [PA] is supposed to have some control.

That military order came just days after the publication of the Levy Report, commissioned by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, which argued that the West Bank was not occupied, because Israel has claims on [large] parts of the territory. The Levy Report urged annexation of the areas of Israeli interest.

Israel’s Ambassador Ron Prosor wrote a Letter to UN Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos on July 10 stating that “since the beginning of OCHA’s operations in the PA, 12 years ago, it’s presence was never officially established”. Prosor added that Israel so far “has received only 1 statement that addresses OCHA’s actions + staff — a letter from 2004. The situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has changed considerably since then, and we therefore believe there is a need to review OCHA’s role in light of the current situation”.

This is strange, because the UN OCHA headquarters is prominently situated in the UN’s MAC House in Jerusalem, a landmark building located right next to where the Mandelbaum Gate used be, which allowed the only passage between east and west Jerusalem from 1948 until 1967.

    UPDATE: Israeli human rights Attorney Michael Sfard wrote in Haaretz on July 25 that “OCHA coordinates activities undertaken by dozens of international humanitarian organizations and relief agencies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These organizations feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless, help create employment opportunities and, more than anything, rebuild the destruction left behind by Israel each time it launches one of its military operations. In recent years, OCHA’s work has focused on humanitarian matters and the work of international organizations in East Jerusalem and the West Bank’s Area ‘C’, where Israel retains civil administrative powers. In both places, Israel pursues planning policies aimed at choking off Palestinian life and reducing its presence as much as possible so these areas can be used for Israeli purposes. International aid organizations impede the fulfillment of this goal, since their basis of action is humanitarian need (such as providing tents, water and electricity), and they regularly supply what the Israel Defense Forces take away. Thus they make it possible for Palestinians to remain on their lands.

    “OCHA does not operate on the ground. It is a coordinating and reporting agency. Its work is considered exemplary, owing partly to its precise, comprehensive reports that are disseminated to the diplomatic community. Such success, accompanied by efforts undertaken by some of the aid organizations to effect deep change, change that would remove the crying need for humanitarian assistance or, put differently, that would alter the discriminatory, abusive policies of the Civil Administration is precisely what has upset Israeli officials such as Prosor…

    “Alongside Prosor’s letter to the UN, in recent weeks various employees of foreign aid organizations have been summoned to meetings with the Civil Administration’s coordination office. During these meetings, they have been required to relay details about their work. They have been told their activity is illegal and that they could be prosecuted. Many organizations have faced a regime of red tape after submitting requests for work visa for members of their staff. When they tried to clarify why visas are withheld, they received complaints and threats, as though the continuation of their work was in doubt. Underlying Israel’s threats to the community of international aid organizations in the territories is the demand that they refrain from the conferral of assistance that helps local populations remain where they are, on their lands. There is a real risk that humanitarian aid workers will be expelled by the government of Israel”.

On July 10, the same day Ambassador Prosor wrote his letter in New York, OCHA had taken journalists on a media tour of The Wall [my term, not OCHA’s]. The OCHA invitation was for a “Media Briefing and a Field Visit demonstrating the humanitarian impact of the Barrier”. The field visit was to “Palestinian communities affected by the Barrier in the Gush Etzion area — in fact, not far from the South Hebron Hills.

Then, there’s also the Israeli grievance over a Tweet by an OCHA staff member [@KholoudBadawi, an Israeli citizen] saying Israel was responsible for the death of another child in Gaza, and giving a more recent date for the 2006 death of a child in Gaza.

There was some suggestion that it is OCHA’s work in Area C of the West Bank [Israeli civil + security control, where most Israeli settlements are located] is what’s bothering Israel.

Ravid reported in Haaretz that a “senior Israeli official said OCHA had promoted several projects in Area C without Israeli approval including illegal construction. Senior officers from the office of Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, asked OCHA’s director in Israel to immediately halt the illegal activities, but nothing has changed”.

The Jerusalem Post reported here that “The Coordinator of [Israeli] Government Activities in the {Palestinian] Territories [or COGAT], Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot, has called on Israeli officials to act as harshly as they can against OCHA’s illegal activity, during conversations he has held on the matter with the Foreign Ministry”.

COGAT spokesman Guy Inbar complained to Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency that OCHA is providing assistance to Palestinians after demolitions of structures that the Israeli Military’s Civil Administration in the West Bank has decided were built in an illegal way. “OCHA gives them tents and by that is doing illegal work, without seeking Israeli permission”, Inbar said. He cited recent demolitions in the South Hebron Hills. This is published here.

Still, if this is the grievance, it’s strange that Israel, with computer records of all entries + all military permits, now asking for “list of OCHA staff + local employees”.

The Letter from Israel’s Ambassador to UN Ron Prosor also asks for “full name, job description and location” of all OCHA staff + local employees.

Attorney Michel Sfard said, in his opinion article in Haaretz, that all this amounts to “a campaign of government intimidation directed against international humanitarian aid organizations”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *