At UNRWA, the Latest Scandal Might Allow Hard Questions to be Asked (Part 1)


The recent scandal at the very top of UNRWA has been about sex and money. The published account, from this past July, accuses Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl of appointing Maria Mohammedi, with whom he was sexually involved, to a new post, created by him just for her as his senior adviser.

According to the UN report, Mohammedi’s new job allowed her to join Krähenbühl on his busy and expensive travel schedule. Current and former UNRWA officials describe him as perpetually absent from Jerusalem, a director who spent 28-29 days of every month out of the office; they likened him to a submarine who “surfaces for a couple of days” of public meetings and then “disappears into the unknown for protracted periods” when he is travelling with Ms. Mohammedi around the world, staying in luxury hotels as he supposedly conducted UNRWA’s “business,” attempting to  persuade various governments to give more money to the organization.

The story continues here:

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The commissioner-general’s travel, the report explains, left Chief of Staff Hakam Shahwan in control of UNRWA’s operations in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Shahwan himself stands accused of bullying staff, acting like a “thug,” bypassing procedures for procurement and other financial decisions, and excessive partiality to the Palestinian Authority. UNRWA says he was “separated” from the agency after writing anonymous emails to journalists trying to discredit the report. Shahwan says he’s on paid leave and hasn’t commented on specific allegations.

The 10-page report also accuses Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell of using her power to get her husband, Robert Langridge, promoted to a more senior position. She has stepped down but remains on staff. Mitchell and Langridge deny the allegations, as do Krähenbühl and Mohammedi.

One hopes that, now that Krähenbühl has resigned – he tried for days to brazen out the scandal but finally succumbed to the pressure – that Maria Mohammedi will also have been forced to leave. And Hakam Shahwan should no longer be on “paid leave” but discharged from UNRWA for his thuggish treatment of staff, his bypassing of procedures for financial decisions, and his “excessive partiality” to the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, Sandra Mitchell, who “remains on staff,” should also be fired, as should her husband Robert Langridge, whose promotion she instigated.

This scandal involving sex, money, and power is unsurprising. For UNRWA itself is one huge scandal. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in 1949 by the U.N., in its Resolution 302 (IV), to “carry out in collaboration with local governments the direct relief and works programs” to help in the rehabilitation of Palestinian Arab refugees, and to “consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer.” It was always intended to be a short-term measure, helping those refugees until they could be integrated into the Arab countries they now lived in. But instead, those Arab countries did everything they could to keep those refugees from integrating. In every Arab state, with the exception of Jordan, those refugees were not allowed to become citizens. In many places they were, and still are, kept in refugee camps, prevented from living in regular housing among non-refugees. They were also prevented from practicing certain professions. In Lebanon, for example, Palestinian refugees suffer systematic disadvantages. Under Lebanese law, Palestinian refugees are banned from working in over 30 professions, including medicine and law. Palestinians are currently banned from owning property, attending public schools, utilizing public health services, and making an enforceable will. They pay taxes to the National Social Security Fund, yet do not receive any of the benefits. Not just Lebanon, but the other Arab states, with UNRWA as their handmaiden, don’t want to allow these “refugees” to be integrated; they want them to remain as geopolitical pawns, tugging at the heartstrings of the U.N. and the sentimental and gullible West, as they wait — how long, O Lord, how long? — to “return” to their “homeland” of “Palestine.”

In fact, the “Palestinian refugee” problem could long ago have been solved, had the Arabs wished to solve it. Ralph Galloway, former director of UN aid to the Palestinians in Jordan, summarized this situation succinctly. He wrote:

The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die. (quoted in The Palestinians: People, History, Politics by Terence Prittie, p. 71).

And another forgotten voice, from a time when it was still possible for some to state home truths, is that of Elfan Rees, the World Council of Churches’ Adviser on Refugees, who declared in 1957:

I hold the view that, political issues aside, the Arab refugee problem is by far the easiest post-war refugee problem to solve by integration. By faith, language, race and by social organisation they are indistinguishable from their fellows of their host countries. There is room for them in Syria and Iraq [and even more room, and need, now, in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil states]. There is a developing demand for the kind of manpower they represent. More unusually still, there is the money to make this integration possible. The United Nations General Assembly, five years ago, donated a sum of $200,000,000 to provide, and here I quote the phrase “homes and jobs” for the Arab refugees. That money remains unspent, not because these tragic people are strangers in a strange land — because they are not, not because there is no room for them to be established — because there is, but simply for political reasons.

Of the tens of millions of refugees that have been created since World War II, there is only one group of refugees — the “Palestinians” — for whom that refugee status is inheritable. That is, the child or grandchild of a “refugee” is also declared to be a “refugee,” and as the status is handed down, the number of “refugees” on UNRWA’s rolls keeps increasing. There are now over five million such “refugees” in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank, and other Arab countries. How many are real refugees, that is, people who actually left Israel in 1948? Perhaps 20,000.

The Israeli government issued a statement, prompted by the resignation of Pierre Krahenbuhl, calling for much wider changes at UNRWA . That Israeli request is here.

The resignation of Pierre Krahenbuhl as commissioner-general of UNRWA on Wednesday was “but the first step in a long process that is needed to eliminate corruption, increase transparency, and prevent politicization” of the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

“Israel views with great concern the recently published findings of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigation into UNRWA and calls for the full and transparent release of all findings of the investigation,” the Foreign Ministry stated. “These findings strengthen Israel’s claims that deep and comprehensive change in the operational model of the agency is required.”

“Under the leadership of UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl over the past several years, the politicization of UNRWA has expanded, the budget deficit has inflated, and the operational model has become unsustainable,” it continued.

“Israel calls on the international community and all contributing countries to take part in an evaluation process to create a new and more effective operational model,” the Foreign Ministry added. “The recent developments prove that the automatic renewal of UNRWA’s mandate for three more years is absolutely absurd, immoral, and unreasonable.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael 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.”

Even stronger was the message from Israel’s U.N. ambassador:

The Jewish state’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, said, “Since its establishment, UNRWA has not worked to resolve the refugee issue, but instead fought hard to perpetuate it. The growing list of charges related to the agency’s conduct makes it clear that there is no other solution except to close it.”

Given the sex-nepotism-sinecure-money scandal that has decapitated UNRWA’s executive suite  – its three top executive have been removed in disgrace – now is time to insist on a thorough investigation of UNRWA. Objections have been raised before, but this time, they have a real chance not only of being heard, but of being acted on.

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