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U.N. Agency for Palestinian Refugees Faces Accusations of Misconduct


JERUSALEM — The United Nations agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, already struggling with funding cuts, is bracing for fallout after a highly critical internal ethics report was leaked to international news outlets this week detailing claims of serious mismanagement and misconduct.

The confidential report by the agency’s ethics office, based in Amman, Jordan, alleged that members of an “inner circle” in the top management of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency engaged in “abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives,” according to Al Jazeera, which first exposed the report on Monday.

Israel and Trump administration officials have previously accused the agency of wastefulness and of perpetuating the plight of Palestinian refugees, and have called for it to be shut down.

The ethics office report is also said to have raised accusations of nepotism and retaliation. And it claimed that there was an inappropriate relationship between the agency’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, a Swiss native who has held the position since 2014, and a senior staff member.

The employee was reportedly appointed in 2015 to a newly created role as a senior adviser to Mr. Krähenbühl after an “extreme fast-track” process, according to Agence France-Presse, which also obtained a copy of the report.

In light of the accusations, the Swiss foreign ministry temporarily suspended payments to the Palestinian refugee agency, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation reported on Tuesday. The agency depends on voluntary donations.

The United Nations agency serves more than five million registered refugees, including hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during hostilities surrounding the founding of Israel in 1948 and their descendants.

Established in 1949, the organization provides food assistance and social services and runs schools and clinics in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In Gaza, an isolated, impoverished and volatile Palestinian enclave, about two-thirds of the two million residents are registered refugees and receive assistance. Since the militant group Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has imposed a land, sea and air blockade of the territory, with Egypt’s help.

Mr. Krähenbühl was accused, among other things, of excessive travel away from his duty station in Jerusalem, claiming an allowance for travel for up to 29 days per month.

The report was submitted to the United Nations secretary-general’s office about six months ago, according to a United Nations official. A spokesman for the office said on Tuesday that the secretary-general, António Guterres, “continues to consider the work undertaken by U.N.R.W.A. as absolutely essential to Palestinian refugees.”

The agency said in a statement that Mr. Krähenbühl had been notified that the accusations were being investigated by the United Nations’ oversight office in New York, and that he had instructed all employees to fully cooperate. The agency added that it could not comment on a continuing investigation.

“Everything circulating now, including in the media, is ‘allegations’ and not findings,” said the statement, sent by an agency spokeswoman, Tamara Alrifai. It added, “If the current investigation — once it is completed — were to present findings that require corrective measures or other management actions, we will not hesitate to take them.”

The United States was once the agency’s largest funder, but the Trump administration slashed its contributions in 2018, citing a refusal by the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table. The administration then cut its funding of the agency altogether.

Last year the agency covered a $440 million financial shortfall with support from other donors — an outcome that the agency said was partly “the result of decisive leadership” as well as the outside support. On Monday, it announced a $50 million contribution from the United Arab Emirates.

But Trump administration officials pointed to the new accusations of misconduct as further evidence of malfunction in the agency, which critics say inflates the number of refugees by including descendants of the original Palestinian exiles.

Jason D. Greenblatt, the administration’s special Middle East envoy, called for a “full and transparent investigation” by the United Nations. “UNRWA’s model is broken/unsustainable & based on an endless expanding # of beneficiaries,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better.”

Citing the Al Jazeera report, Nikki R. Haley, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter, “This is Exactly why we stopped their funding.” And Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, described the agency as an anti-Israel organization and said it was “time to hold it accountable.”

Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Israeli Parliament, called for the closing of the agency and for Mr. Krähenbühl to be denied entry into Israel.

Worried that Israel will be left shouldering the cost, however, other Israeli officials have called for the agency to be phased out gradually and its work to be replaced by other organizations.


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