Donor countries stand by UN Palestinian refugee agency despite corruption probe

The Trump administration skipped today's pledging conference co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden.

al-monitor A Palestinian demonstrator holds a UN flag during a rally against a US decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and in support of President Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, Sept. 26, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma.
Julian Pecquet

Julian Pecquet

@JPecquet_ALM

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UNGA 2019

Sep 26, 2019

NEW YORK — Donor countries today reiterated their support for the UN's beleaguered Palestinian refugee agency, despite corruption accusations against some of its top officials.

Speaking to reporters after the biannual meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee in New York, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi insisted that the international community continues to support the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Jordan co-hosted today's meeting with Sweden.

The goal of today's event, Safadi said, was to “rally support for UNRWA to make sure that we send a very firm message that the international community stands by UNRWA as it faces extreme challenges.”

“We can save UNRWA, we will save UNRWA, we must save UNRWA, because saving UNRWA is basically providing 5 million refugees with their right to live in dignity,” he said. “UNRWA is a glimmer of light in very, very desperate times.”

Safadi said the donors agreed on the need to renew the agency's three-year mandate when it expires later this year. He said several donors had made financial pledges, but he could not offer a number until the UN officials work out which pledges were new and which were just a reaffirmation of past commitments.

The meeting comes at a particularly fraught time for the agency, which has served Palestinian refugees across the region since 1949.

This summer, a confidential internal ethics report accusing top officials of "abuses of authority for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives" was leaked to Al Jazeera. The report included allegations of sexual misconduct, nepotism, bullying and retaliation.

Several countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, have suspended payments while the UN investigates. Meanwhile, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, appealed to the international community to defund the agency in late July.

Safadi insisted today that donors want to hold UNRWA leaders to account but would not abandon the agency, regardless of the probe's conclusions.

“We did address that issue. This is alleged corruption that does not have to do with this matter of the funds, it has to with other alleged practices by the administration,” Safadi said. “All of us are in agreement that UNRWA, the refugees it serves, should not in any way suffer the consequence of whatever the outcome of the investigation is.”

The probe comes as the agency is already fighting to stay afloat after the United States last year ended some $350 million in annual funding for the agency — one-third of its $1.1 billion budget. The State Department at the time called the agency “irredeemably flawed,” while President Donald Trump suggested the Palestinians should not get US aid while they refuse to participate in his administration's Middle East peace process. The agency has also faced repeated accusations that it turns a blind eye to widespread anti-Semitism among its local employees.

Today, Trump's special envoy for Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, announced that the United States would be skipping the annual donor conference.

“Palestinians are among the largest recipients of donor assistance per capita in the world today," Greenberg wrote in a Fox News op-ed. "Yet despite decades of work, billions of dollars, euros, shekels, and dinars donated, life continues to get worse in Gaza and in what some call the West Bank and others call Judea and Samaria. Donor countries must ask themselves why they should keep struggling to raise money when everyone can plainly see the Hamas regime and the Palestinian Authority are squandering the opportunities that donor money provides for a better future for all Palestinians.”

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