- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

NEW YORK — The Israeli government yesterday backed away from claims that a U.N. ambulance was used to transport a Kassam rocket within the Gaza Strip, a mistake that has generated scathing criticism from the United Nations and Israelis themselves.

Israel still appears intent on prosecuting two dozen Palestinian U.N. employees it is holding without charge in “administrative detention,” days after the chief of a U.N. relief effort acknowledged having Hamas members on the payroll. Some of those detainees have been in custody for more than four years, the United Nations says.

In Tel Aviv, Gen. Israel Ziv told reporters yesterday that a re-examination of video shot by a drone aircraft while a long, narrow object was loaded into a U.N. ambulance “revealed there are doubts among the analysts as to what it is.”

“The argument continues to this minute. Some say it’s a weapon and some say it’s an innocent object.” U.N. officials in Gaza have said the object is clearly a stretcher.

The reversal caused severe embarrassment in Israel, where the Armed Forces Radio reported that one of its correspondents had tracked down the driver of the ambulance, who confirmed he was the man in the video and said it showed him putting a stretcher back into his vehicle.

“We are so ashamed, we don’t know where to put ourselves,” said a commentator with the radio station, as quoted by Agence France-Presse.

The incident exposed a fractious and suspicion-filled 54-year relationship between Israel and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which cares for an estimated 1.65 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Peter Hansen, the Dane who has long served as director-general of UNRWA, demanded an apology from Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Monday.

“It is appalling that with the serious conflict now raging in the northern Gaza Strip … the government of Israel would put out such deliberately inciteful, false and malicious propaganda,” he said in a statement.

UNRWA repeatedly has accused Israel of choking checkpoints and imposing unnecessary economic hardship on the Palestinians.

Israel, has accused UNRWA of hiring, harboring and even assisting members of Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups that actively oppose the Jewish state. This complaint was bolstered earlier this week when Mr. Hansen acknowledged the organization probably employs Hamas members.

“I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll,” Mr. Hansen said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “I don’t see that as a crime. … We do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another.”

UNRWA has long maintained that with anti-Israel sentiment so overwhelming in the Palestinian territories, it would be only natural that some of its local hires have sympathies with the militias.

“But the guidelines are clear,” U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters in New York. “People are not to bring their politics into the workplace.”

Johan Erikkson, a spokesman for UNRWA in Jerusalem, said yesterday that 25 UNRWA employees are in detention as terrorism suspects by the Israeli authorities, who refuse to charge or release them. All but one are from the West Bank.

“The most recent [arrest] was more than a year ago,” said Mr. Erikkson. “We’ve had no communications from the [Israeli] judicial system, the military or the prison authorities. We are completely blindfolded.”

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