Israel says UNRWA chief’s stepping aside shows ‘deep’ change needed

Israel says UNRWA chief’s stepping aside shows ‘deep’ change needed

Foreign Ministry calls on UN agency for Palestinian refugees to release full findings of probe into alleged abuses of power by top management

Pierre Krähenbul, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), at a press conference in Gaza City on May 23, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Pierre Krähenbul, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), at a press conference in Gaza City on May 23, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel called on the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees to release in full its findings of alleged mismanagement at the organization, following an announcement that its leader was taking an indefinite leave of absence.

The agency, known as UNRWA, said Wednesday the findings of a probe into alleged abuses of power among top management “relate specifically to the commissioner general” Pierre Krahenbuhl.

The Foreign Ministry said reports on alleged mismanagement at UNRWA lend credence to its criticism of the agency and called for a full release of the probe’s findings.

“The reports reinforce Israel’s claims that a deep and fundamental change is needed in the agency’s operating model,” it said in a statement.

A Palestinian man transports bags of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, December 20, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP

The ministry charged that under Krahenbuhl, UNWRA has become more politicized, “the deficit has ballooned” and the agency’s model was increasingly unsustainable.

“The suspension of Krahenbuhl is a first step in a long process needed to eliminate corruption, increase transparency and prevent politicization in the agency,” it said.

It also called on donor states to consider a new operating model for UNRWA and said recent events showed the agency’s mandate should not be automatically renewed three years from now.

Israel and the US, which last year cut all funding to UNRWA, accuse the agency of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by extending refugee status to millions of descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced out of homes in today’s Israel at the time of the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, rather than limiting refugee status only to the original refugees as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

“The conduct of UNRWA demonstrates it is part of the problem and not the solution. The agency is perpetuating the refugee problem in a clearly political manner and making remote any possibility for a solution,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Israel Katz at a Likud election campaign tour in Jerusalem, September 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

UNRWA said Krahenbuhl will be replaced on an interim basis by the agency’s acting deputy chief Christian Saunders, it said. It did not give a date for Krahenbuhl’s expected return.

An internal ethics report has alleged mismanagement and abuses of authority at the highest levels of the agency, which has also faced a financial crisis after US funding cuts.

The agency said findings in the probe so far “revealed management issues which relate specifically to the commissioner general.”

“The commissioner-general has stepped aside until the completion of the process,” it said.

UN investigators have been probing the allegations in the confidential report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

It says the allegations include senior management engaging in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”

Palestinian schoolchildren studying at the UNRWA Gaza Elementary School in Gaza City. (IRIN/Creative Commons via JTA)

Krahenbuhl himself was alleged to have been romantically involved with a colleague appointed in 2015 to a newly created role of senior adviser after an “extreme fast-track” process, the report says.

That enabled her to join him on international business class flights, the report alleges.

UNRWA was set up in the years after more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their lands during the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel.

It provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees in Jordan. Lebanon and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories. It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians, and its UN mandate is set to be debated later this year.

UNRWA disputes the criticism of it leveled by Israel and the US, saying the services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians.

A number of other countries suspended their contributions pending the outcome of the probe into alleged mismanagement.

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