United Nations officials handed Hamas missiles found last week in a U.N.-run school in Gaza to the Palestinian government, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the case who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.
At least 20 rockets were discovered last week in a Gaza school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates several schools in Gaza and elsewhere.
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Israeli officials claimed on Sunday that the weapons were given back to Hamas, but Western sources familiar with the case say that they were turned over to "local authorities" working under the Palestinian unity government.
It remains unclear exactly where the rockets are now and who has possession of them.
Hamas backs the unity government, but its exact role in the government has become less clear since recent hostilities broke out between the terror group and Israel. The dispute over where the weapons went is a sign of continued uncertainty over the government’s status in the Gaza Strip, where local police are known to be Hamas affiliates.
"There is absolutely no evidence that UNRWA handed the rockets over to Hamas," a Western diplomat working on the issue told the Free Beacon. "The authorities who came and collected the weapons are under the direct authority of the government of national consensus which Hamas has left and which many in Hamas are openly hostile to."
A UNRWA official also maintained that the rockets were handed over to "local authorities" working for the official Palestinian government.
"According to longstanding U.N. practice in U.N. humanitarian operations worldwide, incidents involving unexploded ordnance that could endanger beneficiaries and staff are referred to the local authorities," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told the Free Beacon in a statement.
UNRWA has come under fire repeatedly by the Israelis, who claim the agency has an anti-Israel bias and encourages hostility against the Jewish state. Israel’s U.N. ambassador demanded last week that Gunness specifically be removed from his post for an "ongoing pattern of anti-Israel bias."
Gunness maintained that UNRWA "took all necessary measures" to ensure the missiles were properly removed from the school.
"Immediately after the discovery of the rockets, UNRWA proactively informed the relevant parties and successfully took all necessary measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school," Gunness said. "Local authorities fall under the government of national consensus in Ramallah. They pledged to pass a message to all parties not to violate UNRWA neutrality."
However, local authorities in the Gaza Strip, including the police, are under the control of Hamas. UNRWA did not respond to further Free Beacon questions attempting to discern the exact authorities or government branch the weapons were handed over to.
Israeli officials believe that UNRWA called local police to pick up the weapons. These police in the Gaza Strip are known to be loyal to and operated by Hamas.
"There is no central technocratic authority in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is in complete control, which is part of the problem and why the Israelis went in," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
UNRWA now says that it has launched an investigation to determine exactly how Hamas missiles came to be stashed in one of its schools.
A "Board of Inquiry" has been established to examine "the circumstances surrounding the incident," according to Gunness.
The board will collect evidence and conduct interviews with "material witnesses." This information will then be used in an investigation that will commence when the conflict between Israel and Hamas ends.
UNRWA claims that this is the first time missiles of any sort have been discovered in one of its facilities. The Israeli military has claimed in past conflicts that Hamas uses the U.N. schools as a base to fire rockets.
"UNRWA strongly condemns the group or groups responsible for placing the weapons in one of its installations," Gunness said. "This is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of UNRWA premises under international law. This incident, which is the first of its kind in Gaza, endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA’s vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza."
According to a report released by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the incident is not the first of its kind.
"This case of placing rockets in an UNRWA school was not the first incident of its kind in Gaza, because Hamas and the other terrorist organizations routinely and systematically use educational installations (many of which belong to UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip for military-terrorist purposes," the report says. "By doing so they endanger the children and teaching staff, and grossly violate the international laws governing war."