In recent days, the Palestinian community has been preoccupied with reports of corruption cases involving senior UNRWA officials, particularly following the resignation of the deputy commissioner-general. This coincided with American and Israeli calls to dismantle UNRWA and cut off funding to it as a prelude to the announcement of the “deal of the century”.
Palestinian concerns have increased as European countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium announced that UNRWA funding would be suspended until the end of corruption investigations, with the disclosure that UNRWA’s internal investigations were being conducted under US pressure. Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions said the moves were purely political.
The case began to arise in late July when an Al Jazeera English report suspected UNRWA officials of corruption by implicating them in abuse of power for personal gain and repressing legitimate dissent for their own ends. They also accused the agency officials of favouritism, revenge and abuses of power, posing a grave threat to the reputation of the UN. They stated that their immediate removal should be considered.
The report cited data from within UNRWA because these actions caused senior staff to leave the agency, low morale, fear of reprisals, mistrust, secrecy, bullying, intimidation and marginalisation.
The report also spoke of accusations made against some senior UNRWA officials of engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour, nepotism, discrimination, and forms of abuse of power for personal gain.
The UN report said that UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl was at the centre of corruption, because he had used his authority to promote those close to him and treating those close to him inappropriately. Moreover, the report claimed senior officials had promoted people based on their relations, took retaliatory actions against UNRWA staff, and took advantage of their authority in many ways.
In addition to Krahenbuhl, the UN report mentioned UNRWA official Maria Mohammedi as having travelled with Krahenbuhl several times, and that their relationship went beyond the professional. The Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell resigned in late July, while Chief of Staff, Hakam Shahwan, also left during the same period.
The Palestinians have little doubt that UNRWA, being an international organisation, would have an atmosphere of corruption. However, the leak of these investigations has several noteworthy implications. First that the investigations are not yet completed and are still gathering information and evidence. Second, the investigations coincide with the explicitly American and Israeli calls to close UNRWA. Thirdly, the immediate measures that followed the exposure of these investigations were that several European countries stopped funding to UNRWA, as if it were a move discussed beforehand.
The US Peace Envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, did not wait long before he commented on the UNRWA corruption investigations. He tweeted, “We’re extremely concerned abt UNRWA allegations. We urge a full & transparent investigation by the UN.”
We’re extremely concerned abt UNRWA allegations. We urge a full & transparent investigation by the UN. UNRWA's model is broken/unsustainable & based on an endless expanding # of beneficiaries. Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better. https://t.co/6oQn8jstyj
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) July 29, 2019
The Palestinians have cast much doubt and suspicion regarding the timing of the corruption report in UNRWA because it coincides with American and Israeli attempts to liquidate the agency and end its role. This is because the report aims to undermine UNRWA’s reputation before the UN General Assembly which is meeting to grant the aid organisation a new mandate for three years, scheduled in September. This would mean that the US is using the report to serve its political position.
There is no doubt that the UN report on the corruption of UNRWA officials will serve its enemies, namely the US and Israel, because they will try to raise the report before the meeting in order to put pressure on pro-UNRWA countries, who voted in 2016 to renew its mandate in an attempt to disrupt the next vote.
The disclosure of the corruption investigations in UNRWA comes after a previous statement by adviser to the US President, Jared Kushner, in which he described the agency as “corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.” This supports the theory that the report is being used politically to serve the American approach to liquidate the body. On the other hand, the Palestinians do not rule the possibility of someone in the UN ethics committee, which issued the report, being in collusion with the Israeli and American vision, and using the results to serve it.
UNRWA media adviser, Adnan Abu Hasna, announced that all of the details in the media regarding the corruption of UNRWA officials are allegations and that no results from the investigations conducted by the UN Services Office have been issued. He described the leaks in the media regarding the corruption as unprecedented exaggeration.
Abu Hasna accused unnamed parties of trying to take advantage of the issue to achieve their own objectives, citing the issuance of calls, statements and tweets from officials of one country or another, to shut down the UNRWA.
The Palestinian factions simultaneously issued similar statements and positions, warning of a plan targeting UNRWA in light of the leaked reports on corruption in UNRWA administration. This is because no Palestinian would cover up corruption in UNRWA or allow for those responsible not to be held accountable. However, it is clear that the emergence of corruption cases and making snap judgements before investigations are complete is not innocent and serves the Israeli-American project targeting the most important refugee agency by targeting its central figures.
These factions confirmed that leaking the corruption investigations occurred after plans to financially besiege the agency failed. Therefore, the Israeli and American officials rushed to state the need to write off UNRWA, despite the existence of bigger and more serious investigations being conducted in other UN agencies, but no one suggested the idea of writing them off.
The factions noted the presence of efforts by some countries, beginning with the US, to exploit the corruption suspicions in the UNRWA to target it politically and attack it in preparation to liquidate it. Such targeting has been confirmed by UNRWA because it is the greatest support for Palestinian refugees and an international and historical witness to their Nakba.
At the same time, the Palestinian political forces have made it clear that addressing any manifestations of corruption in UNRWA’s institutions is obligatory and laudable, as any institution would correct its performance in order to achieve its mission and goal as best as possible. However, the manner and timing in which this issue was raised is not innocent and is based on political premises aimed at ending the international agency and liquidating its role and status.
The financial and moral corruption investigations conducted within the UNRWA must be addressed by the UN and the agency must be purged of officials plagued with corruption cases and those opposed to the rights of Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA spokespeople have found themselves in an unenviable position of having to respond to the corruption accusations. UNRWA will need to deal with the results of the investigation once they emerge. There are some who hinted that some pre-empted the situation by leaking the details of the internal investigation, while others did not hide the presence of external pressures put on the UNRWA, in coincidence with attempts to question its role.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.