UN Reviewing Its Operations in Gaza After Offices Attacked

Following a violent protest and rising political tension, the danger of internal violent conflict becomes ever more possible, which only adds to the local populaces' reasons to fear.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian protesters attack the headquarters of the United Nations in Gaza City, January 28, 2015.
Palestinian protesters attack the headquarters of the United Nations in Gaza City, January 28, 2015.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Political tensions are running high in Gaza in the wake of an UNRWA notice that rebuilding of homes partially destroyed by Israel during Operation Protective Edge is being put on hold, due to the failure of donor states to come through with their pledged donations. The United Nations special coordinator, Robert Serry, announced that the UN is reviewing its operations in the Strip following a violent protest that took place near his office there.

With rising political tension, the danger of internal violent conflict becomes ever more possible, which only adds to the local populaces' reasons to fear.

The UN agency's notice on Tuesday led to a public political crisis - unprecedented in its severity - between Hamas authorities and the UN's political office in Gaza, which houses the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO). Serry, along with the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Palestinian Ministry of Civil Affairs, formulated after the war a procedure for transferring construction materials to merchants and contractors in Gaza, as well as homeowners whose houses were destroyed during the last war.

The complicated procedure, which was aimed to enhance the reconstruction of Gaza, allows for Israel to rather invasively supervise every Gaza resident, and was criticized as slowing down the reconstruction effort. several meetings between Serry and Hamas officials, some points of the procedure were altered, and others, more stringent restrictions, were lifted.

But following Serry statements, on Thursday, the Economy Ministry in Gaza ordered contractors and merchants to cease cooperating with UNSCO's procedures – which practically means a halt of their share of the reconstruction effort.

On Wednesday, after a pre-announced protest outside of the UN headquarters, some of the demonstrators burned tires near the gates of the UN compound, in the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza city. A press release issued by Serry said a number of protestors climbed the perimeter walls and entered the compound, "causing damage to United Nations premises and property".

Serry noted that thanks to precautionary measures in the complex, no UN staffers were harmed. He also noted that he was outraged, and that the de facto ruling authorities in Gaza, Hamas, did not take the appropriate measures to defend the compound, and that it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of UN personnel, until the Palestinian unity government and its security agencies effectively takes control. The statement further said that "the special coordinator is conducting an urgent review of operations in Gaza."

A source close to Hamas told Haaretz that protestors did not break into the compound, and that Palestinian police officers arrived on the scene immediately to extinguish the burning tires.

Serry's declaration sparked immediate complaints from Hamas. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a member of Hamas' political bureau, criticized Serry's announcement, labeling it political intervention. However, Abu Marzouk promised that Hamas security personnel would continue to guarantee UN employees' safety. Salah al-Bardawil, a Hamas spokesman, also lashed out against Serry's remarks, denied that demonstrators broke into the complex, and called on Serry to understand the public's outrage, rather than casting blame.

Independent observers in Gaza, on the other hand, noted that it is impossible to hold protests without Hamas' permission, and that the demonstrations in front of the UN facilities are in fact a Hamas initiative.

The consensus government in Ramallah, headed by Rami Hamdallah condemned the attack on the compound, but mistakenly placed the attack at UNRWA facilities in Gaza. An UNRWA representative told Haarertz on Thursday that its facilities were not attacked. On Thursday, protests were in fact held at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency' facilities, but no violence was reported.

The tensions between Hamas and the UN play into two additional cycles of tension. The first is between Hamas and Fatah, over the listless unity government, failure to pay employees' salaries and a series of attacks against Fatah personnel in Gaza, for which Hamas has been thus far unable to find the parties responsible.

The second cycle of tension is internal, among the Fatah movement. Mahmoud Abbas arbitrarily, and illegally, decided to stop payment of salaries and benefits to a few hundred security personnel in Gaza (including retirees), who are known to support his political rival, Mohammed Dahlan. The decision was made some two months ago, but was only made apparent last week, when December salaries were dispensed. In effect, only 60 percent of all salaries were paid, due to the financial strain created by the fact that Israel has not transferred taxes it has collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

This has led to a few violent protests by Dahlan supporters against the Abbas camp in Fatah. The independent Palestinian commission for human rights warned on Wednesday that the internal security situation in Gaza is likely to deteriorate even further.

Amira Hass tweets at @Hass_Haaretz

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