Israel pillories UN worker: Sarah Helm in Gaza examines the dilemma of an American who witnessed the killing of an Israeli by Palestinians but could do nothing to help

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The Independent Online
KATHARINE STRIKER made her name last week in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. A 35-year-old American, she is the talk of every Israeli checkpoint. Young soldiers sneer knowingly as she passes in her white United Nations Volkswagen car.

Whether she deserves her new notoriety depends on your point of view. The Israeli media say Ms Striker is a Jew-hater who deliberately chose not to stop the murder of an Israeli, lynched in Gaza. Ms Striker's UN colleagues say she is a scapegoat and that Israel chose last week to vent its loathing of the UN on a defenceless foreign woman who, one Tuesday afternoon, found herself in an impossible and horrifying dilemma.

It was about 1pm when Ms Striker, a refugee affairs officer for the UN agency, UNRWA, in Gaza, responsible for reporting any clashes in the Palestinian refugee camps, took the road to Rafah camp which abutts the border with Egypt. She travelled unarmed with her Palestinian driver, with only a large UN sign on the car for protection. Turning off the sandy coast track, the driver swung the car into Rafah, passing a military checkpoint and warning signs to Israelis that it was dangerous to enter.

Rafah, heavily patrolled by Israeli soldiers, is always tense but on this day the atmosphere was electric. According to Ms Striker's account - which the Israeli army spokesman said on Friday was no longer disputed - she immediately came upon a seething mob in the main street surrounding a crashed Israeli car. Edging closer she saw a body covered with blood inside the car. It was clearly an Israeli who had somehow strayed into Rafah and had been savagely attacked. Among the crowd were masked men. There were no Israeli security forces in the vicinity.

At this point, the Israeli army says, Ms Striker should have driven the two miles to the nearest army checkpoint to raise the alarm. Instead she followed UN orders by immediately trying to make contact by radio with her headquarters, which has a direct line to the Israeli military authorities. UN staff in the field have no direct means of communication with the Israeli army. But Rafah is a communications blackspot and she could not get through.

Taher Shriteh, a leading Palestinian journalist in Gaza, said: 'It would have been impossible for her to do anything else on the scene. If she had tried to intervene she would have been stoned. If she was seen going to the Israeli army there and then she would have been finished too.' She says she did the only other thing possible. She proceded to the nearest UN health clinic, less than a mile away, where she attempted to telephone her HQ. But the antiquated central switchboard was jammed. In despair she hung up the phone and drove back to the scene. When she arrived the body of Yehoshua Weissbrod was on the ground and he was clearly dead, shot several times.

When the Israeli border police eventually arrived she was told to leave. 'A soldier shouted angrily at me. But another soldier was crying. I could see that he understood that I felt like him. I did all I could under the circumstances,' she said.

The killing of Weissbrod caused a political furore, raising new questions about the ability of the Israeli army and the tough young commander in Gaza, Yom-tov Samia, to control the spreading violence. How could an Israeli have passed through checkpoints into such a volatile area? The army appeared to have no good answers - until four days later when the Mr Samia held Ms Striker responsible.

He told state-run Israel Radio that she could have prevented the murder but had done nothing. Israeli editorial writers and politicians leapt on the story. As Ms Striker continued to work, unfounded reports claimed she had been ordered out of the country in disgrace. The right-wing Jerusalem Post ran an editorial saying the fact that Ms Striker did nothing was 'hardly surprising . . . what was taking place was, after all, the murder of a Jew. And virtually throughout its history the UN has shown nothing but contempt for Jewish life'. Press and parliament alike called for Ms Striker's removal from Israel.

'It was as if they were saying we may have 5,000 heavily armed soldiers in Gaza to prevent the deaths of Israeli citizens but we still expect an unarmed female to be able to do the same job,' said one senior UN employee.

The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, stepped in to support Ms Striker and the Israeli attacks tailed off - no doubt in part because the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, did not want questions about the 'deportation' of an American citizen during his visit to the US last week.

But the aftershocks of the affair will be felt for a long time to come. Although it was the UN which originally gave the State of Israel legitimacy, drawing up the 1947 partition plan, it has since passed a series of resolutions seen as hostile to the state, calling, for example, for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the 1967 war.

Ms Striker, is the daughter of an American diplomat and left film school to come to Gaza. She is remarkably composed now, saying resignedly that, after only seven months in the job, she has come to expect this kind of reaction.

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