UN Relief and Works Agency must continue its work - GulfToday

UN Relief and Works Agency must continue its work

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


A Palestinian boy walks past a donkey-pulled cart as he walks home after filling a jerrycan with drinking water from public taps at a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. File/Agence France-Presse

UNRWA, the UN agency providing for Palestinian refugees has always had a precarious existence because Israel and its allies have insisted the refugees must be integrated by host countries and forget about being Palestinians.

UNRWA has so far survived for nearly 70 years because there has been no political resolution to the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict and the fate of the 750,000 Palestinians driven from their homes and lands by Israel’s war of establishment.

In accordance with international practice, their descendants are also considered refugees.  UNRWA’s dependents now number 5.4 million out of a global total of 13.1 million Palestinians.

UNRWA was created by a UN General Assembly resolution in December 1949 to provide food, shelter, health, education, and welfare services for ethnically cleansed Palestinians living in the Jordanian-held West Bank, Jordan, Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria. The agency deals only with Palestinian refugees and is funded by donor countries rather than from the UN budget. This gives UNRWA a measure of independence while making its fortunes fluctuate with donor willingness to contribute to the agency’s budget.

Due to powerful opposition to its existence UNRWA has always been closely scrutinised by UN officials for mismanagement, corruption, and other abuses of its mandate. The agency had never, as far as I can recall, faced a major scandal involving top officials until now.  Last week the press leaked preliminary findings of an ethics report alleging sexual misconduct, nepotism, bullying, and discrimination due to the concentration of power in the hands of senior staff members who ignored regulations and ruled as a clique.

The report alleges that Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, his deputy Sandra Mitchell, former Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan and Krahenbuhl’s senior adviser Maria Mohammedi had formed a tight “inner circle at the very top” of the agency. This has led to the decline in management overall. The document also alleges he has been romantically involved with Mohammadi who was appointed in 2015 in a “fast track” recruitment.

The report says deterioration in management has escalated since early 2018 when the Trump administration cancelled $300 million of the traditional $364 million US annual contribution to the UNRWA budget and ended all US funding for the agency and other humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The US had been paying about one-third of UNRWA’s budget. The US action compelled Krahenbuhl to focus on funding by appealing to traditional supporters and roaming the globe to find new donors.

The report charges Shahwan with assuming control over agency activities with the backing of Krahenbuhl and Mitchell. Shahwan is said to have undermined field directors and taken command of agency operations in Jerusalem. He is also charged with bypassing procurement and financial rules and putting allies in key positions. He left the agency early last month.

Mitchell and Shahwan are said to have secured the appointment of her husband, Robert Langridge, as deputy director of the agency’s Jordan field office in 2018. While Mitchell and Langridge have both vigorously denied these charges, she has given notice that she will step down ahead of her scheduled exit for personal reasons.  Assistant Secretary-General Christian Saunders, a Briton with years of experience in UNRWA, has been appointed to replace Mitchell.

Krahenbuhl has flatly rejected the allegations made in the report and said another report by an external group of experts “has just shown satisfactory (and at time very satisfactory) results of UNRWA’s management and impact — which is particularly important for us during these times of intense political and financial pressure on the agency.”

He continued by saying that “the United Nations Board of Auditors recognised the quality of the management and leadership of UNRWA” and that UNRWA’s

Advisory Commission, which includes host countries and chief donors, have confirmed these positive assessments.”

In an anonymous e-mail to Al-Jazeera, a senior UNRWA staff member wrote that UNRWA suffers from “a lot of cases of false accusations” and claims the report has been compiled by an opponent of the agency.  “There is a clear intention to shut down the agency and ruin its reputation…  before the mandate renewal expected in November of this year.”  Shahwan was found to be the author of the unauthorised e-mail and, according to Krahenbuhl, was “separated” for sending it.

It must be pointed out that while fiercely defending UNRWA, Krahenbuhl has been sharply critical of its opponents. After the Trump regime cut all ties with the agency, he stated, “One cannot simply wish away five million people.”

He lashed out over the US action by saying he has never been given “a consolidated position on the reasons for it.  This has led me to believe that this decision was made for political reasons as part of the tensions between the US and Palestinian Authority.”  These tensions have been generated by the Trump regime’s subservience to Israel.

Whether or not allegations concerning his behaviour are proven correct, Shahwan was right about UNRWA being constantly under pressure and that UNRWA’S enemies have gone over to frontal attack since Donald Trump took office and fully adopted Israel’s agenda. The aim, of course, is put an end to UNRWA and erase the Palestinians as a people. Their very existence undermines the legitimacy of Israel which is a colonial enterprise created by Western powers just as this region, Africa, and Asia were shedding colonial masters.

Despite the allegations, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called UNRWA’s work “essential to Palestinian refugees” and called on donors to continue backing the agency’s “crucial work.”

When Gulf Today visited UNRWA headquarters and field operation in Jordan last October, staff at several levels praised Krahenbuhl for his all-out effort to raise the $300 million the Trump regime cut from the 2018 budget. He succeeded by appealing to traditional donors to increase their contributions and securing new contributors, notably in Asia. At that time the investigation of malpractices had already begun as preliminary findings had been delivered to Guterres.  Whatever is the final result of the inquiry, UNRWA must continue its work. The UAE has demonstrated its support for UNRWA over the past two years by donating a total of $100 million to sustain its work.

Palestinian refugees living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria would be thrust into total destitution if UNRWA is destroyed and countries where they live could not shoulder the burden of providing for the refugees. Ever since Israel uprooted Palestinian natives of the land it conquered, it has refused to accept responsibility for their welfare.  

UNRWA and the international community enabled Israel to get away with this. Ironically, if UNRWA disappears, Israel would have to provide food, shelter, education, health care, and welfare services to Palestinian refugees living under its occupation.

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