A United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) school in Beit Hanoun was struck today by a series of explosives. It was the third incident since the beginning of the current clashes between the IDF and Hamas in which a UNRWA school was struck by wayward ordinance.
But this time, something was different.
The most salient and tragic feature of this particular attack is the number of bodies. At least sixteen fatalities have been confirmed, and countless more innocent victims have been wounded. By contrast, the two previous incidents wounded six individuals but fortunately did not lead to the loss of any lives.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to discuss the UNRWA’s willingness to speak about the incident through its official Twitter account (@UNRWA). The first two attacks on UNRWA schools garnered a total of five (English) tweets in response. More than ten hours after the tragedy in Beit Hanoun, still nothing.
That silence is deafening.
The UNRWA appears to have responded to the first two incidents in something approximating real time. It’s not easy to reconstruct events perfectly, so I will use the timeline of Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness), a UNRWA spokesman, as a reasonable proxy for when the organization became aware of each incident.
News of the first incident in Maghazi broke on Tuesday evening, when Gunness shared information about an incident that had occurred the night before:
Gunness’s tweets were followed by confirmation from the official UNRWA Twitter account a few hours later:
News of the second incident in Deir Al Balah broke just before noon on Thursday:
Though Gunness’s report was not exactly filed in real-time, he did mark it BREAKING, indicating that his tweet was published only shortly after the incident became widely publicized. It was swiftly followed by the official UNRWA account within half an hour:
But this afternoon’s attack on Beit Hanoun was different. Gunness tweeted about the incident within half an hour of its occurrence (Haaretz first reported it shortly before he did — it did not cover either of the first two incidents, presumably because nobody died):
UNRWA, for its part, still has nothing. To be sure, the account has tweeted in the meantime, but has yet to specifically mention the latest horrific attack. Here are its two most recent tweets, published this evening:
Curious, I thought, that the organization promptly reported minor incidents that involved no deaths, but has failed to even mention the one that has been described by some as a “game-changer”.
And then I went back to take another quick look through the organization’s timeline, and it began to make sense. I already shared one UNRWA tweet from each of the first two incidents (for the sake of reference, here’s Maghazi again and here’s Deir Al Balah), but there were actually a few more.
One thing you might notice about these two tweets, written minutes after the first set I posted, is that they name a specific perpetrator — Israel.
So, to answer my original question, what’s different about the incident in Beit Hanoun is that the identity of the shooter remains somewhat less than clear. Here’s how the New York Times reported on what happened:
Many Palestinians initially presumed it was an Israeli strike that hit the shelter in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, but the Israeli military suggested soon afterward that errant Palestinian-fired munitions might have been the source. The local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which runs the school, said he could not be sure.
And that uncertainty is a problem for UNRWA. Here’s why: the UNRWA is fundamentally a self-perpetuating, fundraising operation, but it only makes bank when innocent civilians die at the hands of the right kinds of perpetrators. Israel accidentally shells a school and injures one person? Tweet that shit. Four projectiles land in the courtyard of a school slash shelter and kill sixteen people, but nobody knows who actually did it? Not even worth mentioning.
I honestly have no idea who fired the shots, though we will undoubtedly have answers soon. And to its credit, the UNRWA did not impulsively blame Israel for the calamity. But when it comes to the suffering of the Palestinian people, which the UNRWA professes to combat, it shouldn’t matter who pulled the trigger. You don’t need a villain to know when there is a victim.
The UNRWA could have conveyed a sense of the carnage and of its indignation without assigning blame to either party in particular The fact that it did not even bother to mention the attack at all simply because of its inability to confidently identify a Zionist perpetrator, I think, speaks volumes — about the organization, about its priorities, and about the people it counts as supporters and in its donor base.