Israel pushes for UNRWA’s closure as leader quits amid misconduct probe

Israel's Foreign Minister: Renewal of organization’s mandate unreasonable and immoral

Pierre Krahenbuhl Commissioner-General of the UNRWA attends a news conference in Geneva (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS)
Pierre Krahenbuhl Commissioner-General of the UNRWA attends a news conference in Geneva
Israel called for UNRWA’s closure Wednesday, as its commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, resigned amid a UN probe into ethical misconduct allegations against him and other top officials in the organization tasked with providing humanitarian assistance to 5.5 million Palestinian refugees.
This “is a victory in the campaign against the politicization and incitement against Israel that is at the root of the agency [UNRWA],” Israel's Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said. “Compounding this, numerous accusations regarding the agency’s conduct signals to the international community that there is no other solution for UNRWA besides its total closure, and it is time to consider alternative models for the refugee issue.”
Earlier in the day, the UN said that its Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) found “management issues which relate specifically to the commissioner-general,” but did not clarify what those were.
UN spokesman Stephan Dujarric said that with respect to Krähenbühl, the OIOS’s job was completed and that it had submitted a report to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that would be studied.
“The fact that Krähenbühl has resigned impacts whatever decisions the secretary-general will have made, but the content of the report will be studied and will be studied very carefully, to make sure that there are lessons learned,” he told reporters in New York.
Dujarric did not give a date for when the full report would be made public or when the overall investigation would be completed.
The preliminary findings “exclude fraud or misappropriation of funds by the commissioner-general,” Dujarric said. Guterres had decided to place Krähenbühl on leave, after which he decided to resign, Dujarric said.
Guterres “thanked Mr. Krähenbühl for his commitment and constant dedication to UNRWA and to Palestine refugees. The secretary-general reiterates his appreciation to UNRWA for their excellent work, which is essential to the well-being of Palestine refugees. Christian Saunders was named officer in charge of UNRWA earlier today,” Dujarric said.
One reporter quizzed Dujarric about his dismissal of the possibility of fraudulent actions with respect to Krähenbühl.
“Some of the allegations involved travel and the class of travel.... When someone was bumped up to business because they had a favorable relationship with the commissioner-general, would that amount to misappropriation or fraud?” the reporter asked.
Dujarric responded, “I cannot go into further detail.”
Right-wing Israeli politicians have long voiced concern about the effectiveness of UNRWA as a humanitarian agency and have alleged that some of its textbooks incite against Israel. The Trump administration took the dramatic step last year of cuttings all its funding to the organization. Until then the US  had been its top donor, with an annual contribution of $360 million.
The Foreign Ministry said it was concerned by the OIOS findings and called for a “full and transparent release” of the report’s data. “These findings strengthen Israel’s claims that deep and comprehensive change in the operational model of the agency is required,” the ministry said.
Under Krähenbühl’s leadership “over the past several years, the politicization of UNRWA has expanded, the budget deficit has inflated, and the operational model has become unsustainable,” the ministry said. Wednesday’s events were “the first step in a long process that is needed to eliminate corruption, increase transparency and prevent politicization of the agency,” it added.
Krähenbühl’s resignation and the probe come as the UN General Assembly is slated to vote to renew the mandate of the 70-year-old organization, which is routinely extended every three years.
“At this time, it is vital that member states and other partners remain committed to the agency and the services it provides,” Dujarric said. “It is also critical for the international community to support the crucial work performed by the agency in the areas of health, education, and humanitarian assistance, which is a source of stability in a volatile region,” he added.
The General Assembly is expected to approve the renewal in spite of the probe. Since the investigation was made public over the summer, many member states have publicly pledged their support of the organization, which spends $1.2 billion a year on Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
The US and Israel are jointly pushing for approval of stricter oversight of UNRWA as part of the mandate renewal process.
Both countries have called on the UN to end UNRWA’s mandate, but have not held out much hope for its termination.
The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday called on the “international community and all contributing countries to take part in an evaluation process to create a new and more effective operational model.”
It further stated that “the recent developments prove that the automatic renewal of UNRWA’s mandate for three more years is absolutely absurd, immoral and unreasonable.”
Dujarric dismissed reports in the Israeli media that Guterres was exploring alternatives to UNRWA. Dujarric, who is Guterres spokesman, said, “I have not seen the report, but from what you tell me of it, I am dismissing it.” Dujarric explained that Guterres does not have the power to change UNRWA’s mandate, and that only the UN General Assembly could do so.
Israel has been concerned that UNRWA, which confers refugee status on the descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 and 1967 wars, has created an ever-expanding refugee population that presents a stumbling block to the conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz said, “UNRWA’s conduct illustrates that the agency is part of the problem and not part of the solution. The agency perpetuates the refugee issue in a political manner, and in doing so distances any possibility for a future resolution. The international community needs to find a new model that will provide humanitarian assistance to those who truly need it, and must remove from the agenda the futile idea of the return of the refugees.”
Krähenbühl, a Swiss national, took over the UNRWA post in 2014. He was previously director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross. His resignation drew concern from Gaza’s Islamist rulers, Hamas, which said it could play into upcoming discussions by the UN General Assembly over the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate.
Hamas official Bassim Naeem said the shake-up increased fears “the agency and its mandate was being targeted under American and Israeli pressure.”
Reuters contributed to this story.