Last August the Trump Administration closed the US taxypayers’ checkbook to a 70-year old bloated and chronically mismanaged international aid program: The United Nations Refugee Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). A handful of nations are now following President Trump’s lead.
But the reason those nations are rethinking the $billions in international aid which has enabled the Arab Palestinian leadership to focus on – including the diversion of that international aid towards efforts to – eliminating Israel, rather than on infrastructure, education and health care, is a sizzling report of illicit sex, nepotism, retaliation and discrimination.
WHY THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION CUT OFF UNRWA FUNDING
When the United States announced its decision to end siphoning taxpayer’s funds into UNRWA, the State Department spokesperson called the Agency an “irredeemably flawed operation” which had been “in crisis mode for many years.”
The U.S. had been shouldering the bulk of UNRWA’s astronomical financial burden for decades despite U.S. pleas that other nations – particularly Arab nations, step up and take on a greater proportion of the cost. In 2017, the U.S. donated in excess of $364m. The contribution of the next four highest donors, the EU, Germany, UK and Sweden combined did not equal the amount the US contributed. There were only three Arab nations amongst the top 25 donor states, and their combined donations equaled less than a quarter of that of the U.S.
The State Dept. Spokesperson announcing US cessation of UNRWA funding also blasted the Agency for its “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.” The population UNRWA serves has ballooned to more than five and a half million, from its initial 860,000 displaced by the Arab war against Israel’s independence in 1948.
In addition to the financial vortex known as UNRWA, there are two unique aspects of the Agency that demand attention. The first is definitional, the second is its exclusivity.
Under international law, people are refugees if they are displaced by acts of war or natural disasters. Such status does not last beyond the generation actually present during the event that made them refugees. Uniquely for Arab neighbors of Israel, the UN defines
as refugees eligible for UNRWA aid, all Arabs displaced by the 1948 war against Israel’s independence, and descendants of fathers who meet the definition. In other words, the population of eligible refugees will only increase, never end.
When Israel was founded, the neighboring Arab countries in which Jews lived were summarily kicked out of their homes. Those Jews were told to go to the new Jewish State. They did, and today those Jews from Arab countries constitute a large proportion of Israel’s population. Neither those Jewish refugees nor their generations of progeny are beneficiaries of the U.N. dole.
Well over half a century has passed since the original generation of Arab Palestinians was deemed refugees by the United Nations, for whom UNRWA was created to support. Today, UNRWA distributes wealth from all over the world to generations of Arabs who never experienced the event said to have created their refugee status.
Secondly, UNRWA was created to serve only one refugee population: that of the Arab Palestinians. All other refugees around the globe fall under the aegis of the official UN Refugee Agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Some nations are finally waking up to the insatiable, unsustainable and unworkable pet project created solely to assist Palestinian Arabs, but not for any of the above reasons. Instead, it’s taken a different kind of kick in the teeth for those countries to wake up.
Last week al Jazeera revealed it received a copy of an internal, confidential 10-page ethics report. That report is allegedly rife with “credible and corroborated” evidence that since 2014 an inner circle of the highest UNRWA staff, including its Commissioner General and members of his staff engaged in sexual impropriety, nepotism, discrimination, retaliation and the use of funds for personal gain. Information was provided for the report by 25 current or former UNRWA directors and staff. And now western media are paying attention.
THE UNRWA SEX, LIES, NEPOTISM AND RETALIATION SCANDAL
The sexual impropriety outlined in the ethics report is certainly salacious. The allegation is that in February, 2015, UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl fast-tracked the hiring of one Maria Mohammedi to the newly created position of his very own “Special Advisor.”
A noteworthy aspect of Mohammedi’s prior professional background was that she starred in the 2013 indie film, “Condom Lead,” created by two Gazan twin filmmakers. The film’s title is a twist on Israel’s 2008 “Cast Lead” operation, which was its military response to continuous acts of terrorism and thousands of rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip against Israeli civilian towns.
The central focus of “Condom Lead” was whether or not it is appropriate to have sex during “the heart of war.”
Krähenbühl’s canoodling with his very special advisor created a “toxic environment” for UNRWA workers, according to the leaked report. Their special relationship included Krähenbühl’s abuse of authority in obtaining waivers so that Mohammedi could frequently accompany him on business class flights.
Krähenbühl was reportedly absent from his Jerusalem office so often – up to 29 days in one month alone – that at least one UNRWA employee referred to him as a “submarine,” because he frequently disappeared for long periods of time, during which he was incommunicado, and only occasionally resurfaced. One former staffer who said he had raised the issue of Mohammedi and Krahenbuhl’s “inappropriate” relationship believed his contract was not renewed as a direct result.
The incessant absences created a leadership vacuum into which stepped Krähenbühl’s Chief of Staff, Hakam Shawan. Since 2015, Shawan increasingly became the de facto head of UNRWA. In the leaked report, Agency employees described Shawan as “behaving like a ‘thug’” who moved people loyal to him into positions of power.
Shawan left UNRWA – accounts vary as to whether he was fired or resigned – in late July after it was discovered that he sent a pseudonymous email attacking the integrity of the author of the ethics report.
In addition to Krähenbühl, Mohammedi and Shawan, Sandra Mitchell, UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner General, was featured in the ethics report. Mitchell, a close colleague of Shawan’s, allegedly sought to have her husband promoted to a more senior position. Her husband became deputy director of UNRWA’s office in Jordan in 2018. The report claims his was an “irregular” hiring process and in violation of UNRWA appointment prohibitions. Mitchell resigned in late July. She was replaced with an acting Deputy-Commissioner General by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The ethics report was delivered to Guterres in December, 2018. The report was leaked to al Jazeera and a copy was obtained by AFP in July, after Agency members were allegedly concerned by the lack of action taken.
SWITZERLAND, HOLLAND AND BELGIUM SUSPEND UNRWA FUNDING
The Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium suspended their funding of UNRWA after news of the explosive allegations surfaced. All three nations rank in the top 20 donor nations to UNRWA. They announced their withholding of funds until the UN issues a satisfactory response to the allegations.
In an official statement responding to the scandal, UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Al-Rifai said that the ethics report was being reviewed by its New York-based oversight committee and that no substantive comments would be issued until the review was completed. She added that the claims about the report being circulated in public are merely “allegations” and not “findings.” She encouraged donors not to withdraw funding.
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION RESPONDS TO UNRWA SCANDAL
The Trump Administration pointed to the UNRWA scandal as further evidence of an international agency riddled with endless mismanagement. UNRWA’s raison d’etre has become an income stream for tens of thousands of agency employees, rather than a means of alleviating what should have been a short-term problem for a people displaced in wartime.
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 tweeted.
HOW WILL CONGRESS REACT TO THE UNRWA SCANDAL?
In late April, Democratic Senators introduced a strongly worded Resolution to reinstate U.S. funding to UNRWA. “President Trump’s refusal to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people is a strategic mistake,” claimed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), one of the Resolution’s sponsors. Feinstein claimed cutting off those funds will push “peace further out of reach.”
Feinstein was joined by 34 other Democratic Senators who demanded President Trump reverse his decision. In their letter to Trump, signed by six of the Democrats running for President – Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I/D-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) – they claimed that his “proposed cuts would undermine those who seek a peaceful resolution” to the conflict and would only strengthen the hands of extremists such as Hamas.
But even UNRWA workers themselves have tired of the fiscal, sexual and managerial improprieties outlined in the leaked ethics report, as well as the retaliation and efforts to cover-up reports of the misdeeds. Also troubling was the months long U.N. silence since its leadership received the report back in December – that left UNRWA workers fearful that, had they not leaked the confidential report, no action would ever be taken. That alone should alarm all UNRWA donors.
The leaked report reveals an out of control Agency with a wayward agenda and a leadership unmoored from any moral compass.
But even the wild allegations in the ethics report fails to address the underlying problem with this Agency, the problem that the Trump administration recognized: UNRWA is an insatiable, ever-expanding aid program whose existence depends on its recipients – and all those of their future generations – never attaining independence and self-sufficiency. And that also means so many of the youth population served by UNRWA are left with only Jihadi terrorists as role models.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is a contributor to SaraaCarter.com. She is a lawyer and journalist who writes about the Middle East, particularly regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, The American Thinker, JNS, and The Jewish Press. Marcus has a J.D. from Harvard Law School and Masters degrees in policy from Bryn Mawr College.