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The Foreign Ministry yesterday rejected the demand of the UNRWA director in the territories, Peter Hansen, for an Israeli apology for claiming that Hamas militants used an ambulance belonging to the aid organization to transfer a Qassam rocket.

Hansen came under fire yesterday from the Canadian government, which asked for clarifications on statements made by the director of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) on the organization's practice of hiring Hamas members.

In an interview to reporter Adrian Arsenal of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday Hansen said, "I am sure there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don't see that as a crime."

The Canadian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that "if it turns out that Hansen's statements were not taken out of context, and in case they represent the position of UNRWA, we are deeply concerned and will request clarifications from Mr. Hansen and the United Nations."

In his statement to CBC, Hansen added that Hamas is a political organization and that not all its members can be automatically declared terrorists or be rejected for their political views.

"Hamas as a political organization does not mean that every member is a militant and we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another."

Hansen insisted that UNRWA demands of its employees to operate within the norms of the UN with impartiality.

"We demand that our staff, whatever their political persuasion is, behave in accordance with UN standards and norms for neutrality."

Canada contributes $10 million annually to UNRWA and in November 2002 placed both the political and military wings of Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations, making any assistance to the group by a Canadian citizen illegal.

The report of Hansen's statements caused uproar among Western diplomats in the UN, who told Haaretz yesterday that the situation is highly embarrassing for the world body.

For its part, in a statement yesterday the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said, "Hansen's statements speak for themselves."

"This man admits on TV that he is paying wages to Hamas members," Israel's ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman told Israeli television. "This is something that cries out and the UN must investigate."

Hansen said that such an inquiry would be impossible "because I can't read minds and hearts of any staff members."

UNRWA is an independent agency of the UN and operates directly under the auspices of the secretary general. It was set up in 1950 by the UN to aid Palestinian refugees in the territories and Arab countries.

The organization is considered to be the largest UN project in the Middle East and the largest employer in the territories, after the Palestinian Authority.

According to data released by the organization, it employs 24,324 people in the territories and the Middle East, 99 percent of whom are Palestinians. These include doctors, teachers, administrators and others.

There is an employees union among the Palestinian workers of UNRWA, and elections are held to elect a central committee. Currently, Hamas is in control of the employee union's central committee.

Hansen has been in charge of UNRWA since 1996 and is due to end his tenure in December, at which point he will return to academia in his native Copenhagen.