Harriet Sherwood misleads on UNRWA statement about Gaza construction ban

Harriet Sherwood’s Nov. 22 report continues in the Guardian tradition of ignoring Hamas’s responsibility for the situation in Gaza, devoting nearly all of the text to highlighting Egyptian and (mostly) Israeli responsibility for the reported economic downturn in the territory.  

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The two opening paragraphs set the tone for her story:

Gaza is becoming uninhabitable as humanitarian conditions deteriorate rapidly following Egypt’s destruction of smuggling tunnels and Israel’s renewed ban on the import of construction materials, the United Nations and aid agencies have said. 

A year after the end of the eight-day war between Gaza and Israel last November, the UN said the situation in the tiny coastal strip was worse than before the conflict.

Further, a passage later in her report – about the IDF’s discovery last month of a tunnel from Gaza into southern Israel – represents a classic Guardian obfuscation: 

In addition, Israel last month halted the import of building materials through the crossings it controls, after the discovery of a sophisticated tunnel built by Hamas militants from Gaza to Israel. According to the Israeli military, it was constructed using materials that Israel had permitted to enter Gaza.

Sherwood doesn’t acknowledge that the purpose of this 1.7 km tunnel was to kidnap Israeli soldiers, nor does she acknowledge – in a story devoted to Gaza’s economic situation – that the construction materials diverted by the Islamist regime to build such an elaborate terror facility could have been used to build schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure projects.  The Guardian Jerusalem correspondent also failed to note that, prior to the discovery of the tunnel, Israel had actually started to increase the quantity of construction materials allowed into Gaza to compensate for the draconian anti-tunnel measures taken by the Egyptian government.

But the most deceptive paragraph appears near the end, where Sherwood addresses the alleged effects of the new Israeli restrictions: 

As a result of the renewed [Israeli] ban, 19 out of 20 construction projects – including 12 schools – initiated by Unrwa have ground to a halt, putting at risk thousands more jobs. Unwra [sic] said Israel’s action was collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.

It appears as if Sherwood significantly mischaracterized UNRWA’s position, as she is almost certainly referring to a statement by the outgoing Commissioner General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, as reported by the agency on Nov. 19.  Here is the UNRWA text in its entirety. 

The outgoing Commissioner General of UNRWA, Filippo Grandi, has warned that 19 out of 20 UNRWA construction projects in Gaza have “ground to a halt”. Speaking to the Advisory Commission of major donors and governments hosting Palestinian refugee populations, Grandi said that since March UNRWA has “not had any construction projects cleared by the Israeli government, and for the past month, has been “unable to import building materials.”

Grandi told the “AdCom” delegates that “following the closure of most smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt”, and “given that Israel does not allow exports and hence a resumption of normal economic activities, prices are rising because commodities are becoming scarce, lack of fuel has provoked the closure of the power plant, the few jobs available in the construction industry are disappearing; and the list continues”, said Grandi.

Grandi had a stark warning about regional stability. “Gaza is quickly becoming uninhabitable, and further conflict is bound, as before, to affect civilians in Gaza and southern Israel, unless its causes are addressed.”  Grandi, who leaves office in the new year, called on the international community not to forget Gaza and to address the human dimension.

The time had come to rethink security concerns and political considerations, Grandi argued. “Perhaps strengthening the human security of the people of Gaza is a better avenue to ensuring regional stability than physical closures, political isolation and military action. To obtain this, first and foremost, the Israeli blockade – which is illegal – must be lifted. Meanwhile, the United Nations must be allowed to at least continue construction projects and provide a few extra jobs to the beleaguered population.”

First, Grandi makes no mention in the statement of “collective punishment”.  Moreover, it’s clear that he wasn’t merely arguing – as Sherwood seems to suggest – that the renewed Israeli ban on construction materials was “illegal”, but that Israel’s entire military blockade to prevent the import of rockets and other deadly weaponry was “illegal”.  However, as Sherwood surely knows, the UN Palmer Commission concluded in 2011 that the IDF blockade is fully consistent with international law and is NOT a form of collective punishment.  It’s especially curious that Sherwood didn’t reveal this fact as she reported on the conclusions of the Palmer Commission herself in a story published on Jan. 23, 2011. In ‘Israeli soldiers fired at Gaza aid flotilla in self-defence, says inquiry‘, she wrote the following:

The commission also found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which the flotilla was attempting to breach, was primarily for security reasons and was imposed lawfully. It added that it did not “constitute ‘collective punishment’ of the population of the Gaza Strip”.

Whilst the language in her Nov. 22 report is not completely clear, if Sherwood is claiming that UNRWA characterized the recent Israeli restrictions on construction materials into Gaza as “illegal”, and as a form of “collective punishment”, it is clear that the outgoing UNRWA Commissioner General never in fact made such an argument.  

Alternately, if Sherwood was merely attempting to characterize the Commissioner General’s opinion on the broader issue of the Israeli blockade, then she failed to reveal that this view was definitively contradicted by the UN inquiry which she herself reported more than two years ago.  

Either way you read Sherwood’s awkward prose, the reader is significantly misinformed. 

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