RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – By day, Awad al-Qiq was a respected science teacher and headmaster at a United Nations school in the Gaza Strip. By night, Palestinian militants say, he built rockets for Islamic Jihad.
The Israeli air strike that killed the 33-year-old last week also laid bare his apparent double life and embarrassed a U.N. agency which has long had to rebuff Israeli accusations that it has aided and abetted guerrillas fighting the Jewish state.
In interviews with Reuters, students and colleagues, as well as U.N. officials, denied any knowledge of Qiq’s work with explosives. And his family denied he had any militant links at all, despite a profusion of Islamic Jihad posters at his home.
But militant leaders allied to the enclave’s ruling Hamas group hailed him as a martyr who led Islamic Jihad’s “engineering unit” — its bomb makers. They fired a salvo of improvised rockets into Israel in response to his death.
Qiq’s body was wrapped in an Islamic Jihad flag at his funeral, pictorial posters in his honour still bedeck his family home this week, and a handwritten notice posted on the metal gate at the entrance to the school declared that Qiq, “the chief leader of the engineering unit”, would now find “paradise”.
That poster was removed soon after Reuters visited the Rafah Prep Boys School, run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. Staff there said on Monday that UNRWA officials had told them not to discuss Qiq’s activities.
No one from the United Nations attended the funeral or has paid their respects to the family, relatives said, adding that Qiq’s widow and five children had heard nothing about a pension.
Spokesman Christopher Gunness said UNRWA, which spelled its teacher’s surname al-Geeg, was looking into the matter.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy towards politics and militant activities in our schools. Obviously, we are not the thought police and we cannot police people’s minds,” he said.
He added that staff were also regularly instructed not to engage in political or militant activities of any kind.
The Israeli army said its April 30 attack at Rafah, close to the Egyptian border, hit a workshop used for making rockets and other improvised weaponry. An Israeli intelligence source told Reuters that Qiq was involved in developing rockets and mortars.
Yet Qiq, a physics graduate with eight years’ experience of teaching at UNRWA schools, was also described by colleagues as a rising star in education. Relatives said he was promoted to run the school last year, with the title of deputy headmaster.
The case of Awad al-Qiq highlights the complexities of life among the 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip, where close to half voted for Hamas in 2006. Hamas fighters join Islamic Jihad in campaigns of rockets and suicide bombing in pursuit of a stated goal of recovering all Palestinian lands lost to Israel.
Qiq’s high profile as both a public figure and in the secret world is unusual enough to cause considerable interest among those in Gaza who were surprised by the funeral arrangements.
Sympathies for guerrillas, who number in the tens of thousands, are widespread despite Israeli efforts to discredit Hamas and its allies by choking food and fuel supplies to the population.
That tactic has also set Israel and UNRWA at odds. The agency, set up to care for Palestinian refugees, has spoken out against what it calls collective punishment of civilians.
Israel has long alleged that militants use UNRWA vehicles and facilities. The United Nations has denied those charges, although some UNRWA employees have had prominent political roles in groups like Hamas — such as teacher Saeed Seyam, who was interior minister in the Hamas-led government elected in 2006.
Some Western officials say the agency, as one of the biggest employers in the Gaza Strip, simply reflects the society it serves. But donors such as the United States, which fund UNRWA’s work, insist on vetting procedures to ensure their cash does not reach groups they class as terrorists — such as Islamic Jihad.
While many in Gaza are open about political allegiances, the threat of the kind of Israeli action that cost him his life on April 30 meant Qiq’s double role was kept very secret indeed.
Surrounded by Islamic Jihad mourning posters at the family home, his sister Naima insisted: “He’s only a teacher and head of the school. School was his life. He had no time to work with Islamic Jihad.” Other family members nodded in agreement.
At the school, a 17-year-old who gave his name as Shadi read a poster for his former teacher and said simply: “Nobody knew.”
At the bombed-out workshop 3 km (2 miles) from the school, damaged cars can be seen through now-locked gates. A 35-year-old man who gave his name as Abu Mohammed said he had found Qiq dying inside after helicopters fired a missile at the building.
“He was still alive, but he died shortly after,” he said.
Relatives recalled with pride that Qiq had met John Ging, UNRWA’s Gaza operations director. But while fellow teachers had come to pay their respects, they saw no U.N. representative.
Qiq’s sister said his wife and five children were worried by the lack of news on any pension payment: “Awad did a lot for UNRWA,” she said. “The family hoped UNRWA would support them.”