“UNRWA-Hamas Linkage” ran by Google Ads when users query “UNRWA”

“UNRWA-Hamas Linkage” ran by Google Ads when users query “UNRWA”
The sponsored content appeared at the top of the Google Results page when users googled ‘unrwa’ and UNRWA-related topics.

impACT International expresses serious concerns at a sponsored page, named ‘UNRWA-Hamas Linkage’, appeared (until Monday, 27th May, though now removed) at the top of Google Search results page when users query the term ‘UNRWA’ in their search engine. The page is registered under the Israeli Governments Uniform Resource Locator (URL) and contains National Digital Agency watermarks and logo.

 

The page looks to perpetuate the notion that “UNRWA in Gaza is beyond repair”, reiterating an accusation levelled by a number of high-ranking Israeli officials, including most recently by Foreign Minister Israel Katz, that the UN organisation has been “deeply infiltrated” by Hamas. This is despite an independent investigation, which in April, concluded that “Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence” to substantiate these claims. 

 

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) is a critically important organisation for the survival of Palestinians both in Occupied Territories and in the surrounding region. The organisation provides a plethora of services, including primary healthcare, food assistance programmes and education. In 2021 over half a million children were enrolled in UNRWA schools. In February, the fifth month of Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip, 87% of civilians were dependent on UNRWA for survival.

 

Allowing for such an advert, which perpetuates unsubstantiated allegations, “instigating public distrust” to further degrade the reputation of a critical humanitarian organisation, aiding Palestinian civilians during Israeli military actions which have been described as “reasonable grounds” for war crimes by the ICC, is a gross violation of Google’s obligations to the UN Guiding Principles. Of course, Google has come under significant pressure through their technological support for Israeli government apparatus. In particular, it’s ’Project Nimbus’ contract, which provides Israeli government departments, including the military, with cloud services, many of whom are contractually obligated to use either Google or Amazon tech. 

 

As laid out by a 2022 report from Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, tech corporations like Google, “have created a new paradigm that has exposed ambiguities, uncertainties, and potential gaps in international legal standards” that allows for state or non-state actors to “exploit … to the detriment of human rights and humanitarian protection”. Sponsored content, like the ‘UNRWA-Hamas Linkage’ page, is a clear illustration of this exploitation. The monetisation of conflict-related content in advertising spaces has clearly “incentivised the manipulation of information”. This may well have had a drastic impact on the public perception of the organisation, which, in light of the many attacks on UNRWA staff and infrastructure has served to legitimise the violation of numerous internationally agreed upon human rights. 

 

Google must act in accordance with their UNGP obligations. 

 

Israeli Accusations

 

In January 2024, over three months after the October 7th attacks perpetrated by Hamas operatives, Israeli authorities notified High Commissioner, Philippe Lazzarini and other UN officials that 12 UNRWA staffers had been involved in the attacks. According to the High Commissioner, 10 of these individuals were immediately fired by the organisation in what Lazzarini called an “exceptional, swift decision”, with the other 2 individuals “confirmed dead”. During and since, Israeli sources, supposedly citing from a larger dossier which had been collected from their, highly criticised and ongoing, invasion of the Gaza Strip, have further suggested that a significant share of UNRWA employees also belong to Hamas.

 

Immediately after these accusations were made public, before any inquiry or supported evidence was presented, individual donor nations including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and others all suspended their donations, leading to a loss of $450m of vitally important funding for the organisation. The consequences of these decisions have been drastic. With an imposed famine in full swing, alongside the continued bombings, a ground invasion, a lack of water, rising infection rates of preventable diseases, and the almost complete collapse of the healthcare system. On Tuesday, 21st March, it was announced that the United Nations had ”suspended food distribution in Rafah City due to a lack of supplies and insecurity” due to funding and the Israeli aid blockade.

 

On the 5th February, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced that, French diplomat and former Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna, would be heading an independent review of UNRWA to investigate Israeli government accusations concerning the 12 individuals named, as well as, wider accusations of infiltration. The process began on the 13th February 2024, with it’s Final Report for UN Secretary General being released last month on 20th April. It reviewed a number of vital neutrality policies, including screening processes for would-be employees. Whilst the review did suggest that the organisation “lacks the funding to establish major vetting systems”, it concluded that “Israel is yet to provide supporting evidence” of the “public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations”.

 

Though certainly, these accusations have escalated, they are not exclusive to the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip: in June 2017, it was reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu lobbying the UN for it’s dissolution “accused [UNRWA] of anti-Israeli incitement”. During the invasion, the organisation has been seriously impeded and subject to continued accusations. With Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich cancelling it’s tax exemptions, writing on X that “the State of Israel will not give benefits to terrorist aides”, in the same month, Smotrich blocked flour shipments from reaching UNRWA in Gaza so that it won’t “reach Hamas”. Israel Katz, Foreign Minister, has also stated publicly that due to infiltration “it is no longer possible to determine where UNRWA ends and where Hamas begins”. 

 

Since, nations who initially withdrew funding are slowly restarting donations to UNRWA, with Italy announcing the resumption of their funding on 25th May. Some, like the United States and the UK, despite legal action, are still withholding funds as Israel continues its invasion of Rafah, which was ordered by the ICJ to stop on Friday.

 

“UNRWA-Hamas Linkage” Sponsored Page

 

When Google users typed in ‘UNRWA’ into the search engine, they were met with a sponsored site titled “UNRWA Neutrality Compromised”. Visiting the site page, it’s uniform resource locator (URL) shows a clear link to the Israeli government domain. It’s watermark, though pixelated, indicates that the site was established through the Israeli National Digital Agency (INDA) and created through the ‘Gov Extra Mini Site’ page. Mini-Site allows the creation of webpages where organisations or individuals “can present campaigns, marketing sites, events” through the government domain. Those who wish to establish a page on this site must “receive permissions on the systems” itself before it goes live.

 

The page looks to perpetuate the notion that the organisation has been compromised and to degrade its humanitarian objectives, as well as, de-legitimise the conclusions of The Colonna Report. Not only does the existence of this sponsored page clearly violate Google’s obligations to the UNGP, they severely threaten the humanitarian objectives of the organisation in Occupied Palestine, and, worse, only serve to legitimise the killing and destruction of UNRWA staff and infrastructure, which has been a consistent theme through Israel’s invasion of the besieged enclave. 

 

“Deeply Compromised”

 

One of the clearest goals of the INDA page is to establish synonymity between Hamas and UNRWA, both through it’s staff and it’s infrastructure, echoing earlier claims by Foreign Minister Katz that “it’s no longer possible to determine where UNRWA ends and where Hamas begins”. Substantiating a claim that has, so far been found to have no reasonable evidence, it states that “it is already clear that a significant share of UNRWA’s employees in Gaza serve in the ranks of Hamas”. Claiming that “2000 of its staff” are affiliated with “500 of them serving in military positions”, it cites no evidence. It also alleges that “over 30 UNRWA facilities in Gaza contain terror infrastructure”. 

 

Delegitimisation of Humanitarian Efforts

 

Alongside equating both staff and infrastructure with Hamas and “other terrorist organisations”, the site looks to publicly degrade UNRWA’s humanitarian efforts during Israel’s invasion. Accusing the organisation of “underperforming logistically on the ground since October 7th”, “failing to scale up its operations” and “attempting to create a monopoly on the distribution of aid”, the authors of the sponsored INDA page are clearly looking to further degrade UNRWA’s image as a provider of humanitarian aid. The authors, ignoring why humanitarian demand had increased, title one portion of the page “UNRWA in Gaza is beyond repair” positing that it is a “grave security risk”, but also “seriously jeopardises the humanitarian efforts”.

 

The Colonna Report

 

The site also looks to degrade authenticity of  The Colonna Report, which, as stated, concluded that the Israeli authorities had not provided evidence to substantiate many of their sweeping claims of ‘deep infiltration’. It states: “Ms. Colona [sic] has been explicitly instructed not to investigate any allegations of breaches of neutrality by UNRWA” despite this being a clearly goal of the investigation, as stated in it’s Executive Summary: 

 

“The Group was created to assess whether UNRWA is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and respond to allegations of serious neutrality breaches”.

 

UNRWA Impact

 

Beyond the well-documented stripping of funding for the organisation immediately after the accusations against UNRWA were made by Israeli authorities, prominent political figures have continued to align the organisation publicly with Hamas. This has bookended, either to qualify or excuse, a number of attacks on staff and infrastructure, both by the invading military in Gaza and by violent settler groups in the West Bank. These instances are numerous, with UNRWA documenting “349 incidents impacting its premises and internally displaced persons” between October and March, killing at least “408 IDPs, injuring 1 406 (including 111 children and 43 UNRWA staff)”. Since March, more UNRWA infrastructure and staff have been targeted or killed. 

 

On 13th March, at least one UNRWA staffer was killed, and 22 others were injured when Israeli forces hit a food distribution centre in eastern Rafah. This month, photographic evidence showing bullet holes in a clearly demarcated UN vehicle was published. Witnesses and reports illustrated that despite the UN decals, the Israeli military fired upon the vehicle which killed Colonel Waibhav Kale, former Indian army officer. Targeted violence towards UNRWA infrastructure and staff is not indigenous to Gaza. The UNRWA Headquarters for the West Bank, based in al-Quds ash-Sharqiya/East Jerusalem, was forced to close temporarily due to “weeks of attacks” by Israeli residents and culminated in an attempt to burn down the facilities. Lazzarini stated that a group of Israelis “accompanied by armed men” had “set fire to the perimeter of the UNRWA Headquarters” forcing it to close and staff to flee. This is not the first time staff were subject to violence. For months, UNRWA employees had been “subjected to harassment and intimidation” and on several occasions “with guns”. They had also experienced “demonstrators throwing stones at [them] and the buildings of the compound”. The attempt to burn down the compound is a marked escalation beyond the apartheid walls of the Gaza Strip, that has been stoked by both Israeli authorities, and now Google, through the proliferation of these damaging claims. 

 

The equivocation of Hamas with UNRWA, is illustrated through the systematic targeting of UNRWA sites in order to serve the Israeli states rhetorical goal of ‘destroying Hamas’. On Monday, reports and videos circulated of burned civilian bodies from an UNRWA IDP camp, which had been marked as a supposed ‘safe-zone’ by Israeli military, in Rafah, targeted by Israeli forces. So far, 45 people have been killed, with videos of charred bodies and a decapitated baby circulating, it appears at the time of writing that the fires began by Israeli strikes are still burning. 

 

Google’s Obligations to the UN Guiding Principles

 

The UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) are a number of principles, values and guiding statements which express the manner in which states and corporations must act as not to violate international humanitarian laws. They largely orbit around a number of “foundational principles”, which place “respect for human rights” at the centre, lay out a number of “adequate measures for the prevention, mitigation, and remediation” of “adverse human rights impacts” and frame the parameters by which business enterprises may “undermine … human rights” and “weaken the integrity of judicial purposes”. 

impACT believes that Google, in allowing for such an advert to appear at the top of the search results when users look for information for an organisation so critical to the survival of millions of Palestinians, violates not one, but a number of these principles that they are obligated to follow: 

 

PRINCIPLE 13

 

Principle 13, within the portion of the UNGP which relate to ‘The Corporate Responsibility to Protect Human Rights’, demands that business enterprises must “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities”. Google, in allowing the running of the “UNRWA-Hamas Linkage” sponsored page, could have accelerated public distrust in UNRWA, accelerating the degradation of their status as a humanitarian organisation and legitimised attacks on their facilities and staff. 

 

Google are obligated to “prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts”. We not only believe that Google violated this principle, but has incited violence against UNRWA through this sponsored-page. Consistent with UN Special Rapporteur, Irene Khan’s 2022 report, that the dissemination of such content can “incite violence”, we believe that Google’s choices to place such sponsored-content continues to perpetuate allegations that establish an environment that is accepting of the targeting of UNRWA sites, the killing and maiming of civilians, as well as, numerous other human rights violations.

 

PRINCIPLE 17

 

Principle 17, which obligates corporations to “carry out human rights due diligence, assessing actual and potential human rights impacts … through its own activities, or which may be directly linked to its operations, products or services” has also been violated. Acting as a stabilising force in such a densely populated, impoverished and segregated area, UNRWA is critical to the survival of Palestinians, attempts to de-legitimise its operations cannot be seen as anything other than an attempt to punish desperate Palestinians and ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip. Google have clearly not properly assessed the impact that this ad may have, and therefore, violated Principle 17. 

 

PRINCIPLE 18

 

Similar to Principle 17, Principle 18 requires that corporations “gauge human rights risks” to “identify and assess any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts which they may be involved”. This requires a “meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups”. Consultation with UNRWA about the seriousness of such allegations, appearing at the top of the results page when searching for content related to the organisation, clearly did not occur. With, as established, already over 300 instances of attacks on UNRWA facilities, it is clear that continuing to degrade the legitimacy of an organisation through advertising will have adverse human rights impacts which Google involve themselves in. 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

This is not the first time utilised Google advertisements have been used by the Israeli authorities to establish favourable public attitudes towards their invasion of the Gaza Strip, which has been described as “reasonable grounds” for future charges of war crimes and genocide, by both the ICC and ICJ.  In January, VICE reported that similarly, Google ran ads when users searched for “icj”. Israel are reliant on Google to perpetuate unfounded, politically dangerous statements which may well, in the case of ICJ adverts “weaken the integrity of judicial purposes”, and in the case of the “UNRWA-Hamas Linkage” content, incite violence and violate human rights.

 

With the Knesset set to hold a preliminary vote on two bills which would designate UNRWA a terrorist entity, it is clear that the political authorities in Israel are wholly detached from the realities of the conflict. The determination to undermine UNRWA is politically motivated and a critical aspect of their attempts to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip. Google, in green lighting sponsored ads like “UNRWA-Hamas Linkage”, aids these attempts to violate Palestinian human rights. 

 

Google are violating, at least, three UN Guiding Principles in allowing these sponsored pages to appear. Not only must this page be removed, but Google must face repercussions. 

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