The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created in 1949 as a relief and human development agency to support Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel’s war of independence. Although originally created to provide jobs on public works projects and direct relief to a finite refugee population, today it provides health care, education and social services to millions of Palestinians – including multigenerational descendants of the original refugee population. The documented needs of the affected Palestinian population are real. But questions have persisted about the ineptitude, bias, incitement and corruption within UNRWA’s administrative leadership, and whether the agency is doing its job properly or effectively.
Among other things, UNRWA has been accused of employing Hamas members and using anti-Semitic textbooks in its schools, and has repeatedly been shown to allow Hamas to hide rockets in UNRWA schools. Now, reports have surfaced about rampant corruption within UNRWA. According to an internal ethics report, leaders of UNRWA are guilty of “nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”
For example, Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, the agency’s top official, was accused of appointing his girlfriend as an adviser. The couple traveled widely and spent lavishly, with their flings funded by UNRWA money that was supposed to be used for refugees. Similarly, Deputy Commissioner General Sandra Mitchell is accused of abusing her authority to get her husband promoted. Both Mitchell and Krähenbühl deny the charges, as does Hakam Shahwan, the agency’s chief of staff, who was accused of acting like a “thug.”
The United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services launched an investigation. But is UNRWA “irredeemably flawed,” as the State Department claimed last year when the United States cut $300 million in annual donations to the relief agency? Or was the Trump administration’s move designed to support the Netanyahu government and punish Palestinians for their leadership’s refusal to engage on the Trump peace initiatives, as critics have claimed? Either way, UNRWA’s rot, and the sense that it is an ineffective holdover from another time, make it an easy target.
So what now? Alex Joffe and Asad Romirowsky of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies recommend that “funders must demand internal controls, external audits and public access to information. Assurances regarding Palestinian need are not enough. Scrutiny is also needed for the Palestinian Authority, which uses foreign aid to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in pensions to terrorists and their families.”
These seem like sensible prescriptions. But who is going to implement them? Other than the U.S., UNRWA funders have been silent. And now, without pressure from the United States, it seems unlikely that anything is going to be done to stop UNRWA bureaucrats from feasting at the public trough, while the Palestinians they are supposed to be helping lack electricity, water and hope.