(CNSNews.com) – The U.N.’s agency for Palestinian refugees has amended a Ramadan donation appeal after critics pointed out that it featured a child in a bombed-out area near Damascus and not – as the agency claimed – a Palestinian girl in Gaza supposedly victimized by the Israelis.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said in a statement Saturday that as soon as the matter was drawn to its attention it investigated and found that it “had mistakenly posted an image from our archive of a child in Syria and had said that the child was in Gaza.”
“The image has been replaced,” it said, then added that, whether in Gaza or Syria, the Palestinian refugee children it served were in urgent need of help.
The issue, however, may have gone beyond the use of the wrong photo to illustrate the Ramadan appeal. UNRWA originally claimed that the child in the photo was a girl in Gaza named “Aya” for whom it provided a brief biography:
“The blockade of Gaza began when she was a baby, the occupation in the West Bank before her parents were born. Now she is eleven, and the blockade goes on,” it said. “Aya’s childhood memories are of conflict and hardship, walls she cannot escape, and the fear that the only home she knows, however tiny, could be gone when she returns from school.”
The photo and blurb about “Aya” originally appeared prominently on UNRWA’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
When the “mistakenly” used photo was removed, it was not replaced by a photo of the real Aya (if she exists), but simply with the words, “Stand With Palestine Refugees” against a black background, along with a link to a donation page.
The wording was also edited: All references to “Aya” were removed, and the blurb spoke instead about “children in Gaza.”
“The blockade of Gaza began when they were babies, the occupation of the West Bank before their parents were born. And the blockade goes on,” it said. “Their childhood memories are of conflict and hardship, walls they cannot escape, and the fear that the only home they know could be gone when they return from school.”
An UNRWA official said Monday there was “nothing to add to the statement we put out which makes clear that this was a mistake.”
The agency had been asked whether “Aya” exists or was concocted for the fundraising appeal. It was also asked whether any action been taken against the person or persons responsible for the alleged deception.
The U.S. is UNRWA’s number one donor ($380.59 million in 2015); American taxpayers have provided more than $4 billion to the agency since 1950.
On Friday, the photo, the non-governmental organization U.N. Watch first drew attention to the fact that the purported photo of a girl in Gaza had actually been taken – by an UNRWA photographer – near Damascus three years ago.
It had featured in previous UNRWA materials, and was the cover photo of a 2014 report on the crisis in Syria. The caption states, “A young girl stands in the rubble of Qabr Essit, near Damascus. In 2014, UNRWA was able begin rebuilding facilities within the neighborhood, including a school and community center © 2014 UNRWA Photo by Taghrid Mohammad.”
The image appeared again in subsequent UNRWA material, including a January 2015 article and photos of the Syria crisis.
U.N. Watch called on UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl to apologize over the matter.
‘Counterweight to extremism’
UNRWA has long been one of the U.N.’s more controversial agencies, drawing critical attention from U.S. lawmakers and appropriators over the misuse of facilities, employment of staffers with links to terrorist groups, and anti-Israeli incitement in school materials and programs.
The omnibus spending bill to fund the government through September, signed by President Trump on May 5, cites some of these concerns.
Specifically, it requires the secretary to state to brief congressional committees on matters such as whether UNRWA employees and facilities are neutral and impartial, and whether materials used in its schools and summer camps are “consistent with the values of human rights, dignity, and tolerance” and don’t “induce incitement.”
In its FY 2018 budget proposal the State Department does not give a specific funding figure for UNRWA but includes funding for the agency in a broader $1.2 billion request for “assistance programs in the Near East.”
Essentially echoing language used in previous budget requests, the proposal describes UNRWA as “an important counterweight to extremism and a force for stability in the region.”
UNRWA is the only U.N. agency created to deal exclusively with one group of refugees. All other refugees around the world are the responsibility of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Also unique is the definition that the U.N. uses for a Palestinian refugee: Any Arab who had lived in the area for just two years before having “lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict” is regarded as a Palestinian refugee, along with their offspring.
Even if people covered by that definition later acquired the citizenship of another country – as have two million people in Jordan – they remain refugees as far as UNRWA is concerned.
By contrast, the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention states that refugee status ceases to apply where a person “has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.”
Seven decades on, as a result of the unique definition used for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA says there are today some five million living in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
The number of Arabs who actually lost their homes during the 1948 conflict range from 580,000 (Israeli estimate) to 914,000 (Palestinian and U.N. estimates).