UN relief agency says allegations it gave rockets to Hamas ‘baseless’

Palestinians take shelter in UNRWA school after Israeli army launched a ground operation in Gaza City. APAimages/Rex Features/The Canadian Press

*Please note: This story has been updated to include comments from the office of the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General

Allegations a United Nations relief agency handed rockets over to Hamas are “utterly untrue and baseless,” a spokesperson for the agency told Global News.

Twice in a one-week period the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and education for Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian territories and other Middle East countries, has discovered rockets in vacant schools it maintains in the Gaza Strip.

In both instances UNRWA said it notified “relevant parties,” of the discovery—including the Israeli authorities and police bomb disposal experts that report to Palestinian authorities based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, as well as the agency’s donors.

The group has condemned the placement of rockets in its facilities. But they don’t know where the rockets are now, according to the office of the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General.

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Reports in Israeli media accused the agency of giving the rockets to Hamas, whose armed-wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, has been firing a steady barrage of rockets at Israeli cities for more than two weeks.

READ MORE: UN human rights council approves inquiry into ‘war crimes’ in Gaza

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement and on twitter that he was “appalled” by the reports and demanded an “immediate independent investigation.”

Canada stopped providing annual $11-million funding to UNRWA in 2010, instead earmarking more money to projects within the Palestinian Authority. Then-Treasury Board President Vic Toews said the government wanted “to put that money only into programs that are consistent with Canadian values.”

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UNRWA spokesperson Chris Guiness said the actions the agency took were to protect refugees, its installations, staff and neutrality.

“We are a humanitarian organization,” he said, categorically denying it handed artillery to Hamas.

READ MORE: Hamas militants wearing Israeli military uniforms killed soldiers: IDF

“Everyone is saying this but no one has produced any evidence,” he said in a phone interview from the UNRWA office in East Jerusalem. “Apart from telling everyone proactively and transparently, and condemning it strongly, we’ve initiated an investigation.”

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But that investigation isn’t likely to get very far until after the fighting stops, he added.

READ MORE: US pushes for truce as Gaza battle rages

In forming a unity government with Ramallah-based Fatah in June, Hamas resigned “formal authority of the Gaza Strip to leadership in Ramallah,” the New York Times reported. Israel did not support the the unity government and encouraged the international community to do the same.

Raw video: Red Cross team comes under fire in Gaza

UNRWA staff in Gaza first discovered about 20 rockets in a vacant school on July 15 during a routine inspection. Guiness didn’t know how many rockets were in the second batch, which was discovered Tuesday.

“Because, frankly, it’s dangerous and unstable material, the staff member didn’t go and pick it up and pick through it and count,” he explained.

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He said UNRWA has to maintain working relationships with all sides in order to provide aid to about one million people in the Gaza Strip. He said that neutrality “is the most important thing we have in many ways.”

The Jerusalem Post reported there is “no hard proof” that whoever took control of the rockets gave them back to Hamas, but suggested it’s likely they “cooperate with Hamas.”

Robbie Sabel, a former Foreign Ministry legal adviser, told the Jerusalem Post  the UN didn’t have many options in how to handle the situation, with no means to destroy the rockets themselves.

UN Secretary-General wants plan to deal with weapons found in UN premises

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was outraged rockets were found in the UNRWA schools and  the world body will take action to ensure its facilities won’t be used in such a way again.

“Those responsible are turning schools into potential military targets, and endangering the lives of innocent children, UN employees working in such facilities, and anyone using the UN schools as shelter,” the Secretary-General’s spokesperson said in a statement.

The statement also said Ban has directed the UN Dept. of Safety and Security and the UN Mine Action Service to “immediately develop and implement an effective security plan for the safe and secure handling of any weapons discovered in UN premises.”

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Ban also lauded the work of UNRWA staff working to help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Guiness said the UNRWA has opened shelters for about 120,000 people in schools such as the ones where rockets were found.

Also on Tuesday, the agency condemned said an Israeli strike on one of its schools, where about 300 people were taking shelter. The school was marked with a UN flag, according to UNRWA’s statement.

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