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UN chief to meet with major UNRWA donors

Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson tells JNS folding UNRWA into larger UN refugee organization “won’t solve the problems” of the besieged agency. 

Palestinians demonstrate in the Balata refugee camp against the policies of Scott Anderson, director of UNRWA in Judea and Samaria, Sept. 17, 2017. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Palestinians demonstrate in the Balata refugee camp against the policies of Scott Anderson, director of UNRWA in Judea and Samaria, Sept. 17, 2017. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was set to meet on Tuesday with major donors to the embattled U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the United Nations’ Palestinian-only refugee organization.

A number of major donor countries announced in recent days the suspension of their contributions to the agency amid revelations that 12 UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre. The information was provided to UNRWA by Israel. Nine of the 12 employees had their contracts terminated, while another two were having their status reviewed. One of the employees identified is deceased.

Furthermore, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that intelligence Israel shared with the United States indicated that out of some 13,000 local Gazan employees of UNRWA, approximately 1,200 have ties to either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Guterres’ office did not immediately identify which countries would take part in Tuesday’s meeting. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres met on Monday with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Washington’s U.N. envoy.

Dujarric said the United Nations had not yet received from Israel the intelligence dossier cited in media outlets as implicating a substantial number of UNRWA employees or tying them directly to terror groups.

“We’re happy to get any information that they have,” Dujarric said, though there was no firm confirmation that the United Nations, which has taken a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to UNRWA’s terror ties, actually requested the dossier. 

The United Nations said the funding suspensions leave UNRWA in peril, with money now set to run out by the end of February as the scandal-plagued organization leads humanitarian efforts in the Gaza Strip.

Guterres is appealing to governments that have suspended their contribution to at least guarantee a continuous cash flow to UNRWA, perhaps delaying their suspension until after war-related humanitarian needs subside.

Asked by JNS whether donor countries remaining skeptical of UNRWA could redirect their donations to the likes of the World Food Programme and other aid agencies in Gaza, Dujarric insisted that “No other organization than UNRWA has the infrastructure to do the work that they do. It’s not as if anyone else can come in tomorrow and do the work that they do. I’ve seen a lot of discussions that are just not feasible in any way, shape or form.”

Guterres also met with the head of the United Nations’ internal investigations unit to look into the allegations from Israel. The investigation “will be done swiftly and as efficiently as possible,” said Dujarric.

“Any employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” Dujarric added, though he could not identify any avenue through which a prosecution could take place, given that the United Nations holds no jurisdiction and any ruling entity in Gaza is almost certainly not going to hand over suspects to Israel to be tried there. Guterres cited an unnamed “competent authority” in a Sunday statement.

“Let’s let the investigation run its course” before determining jurisdictional issues, he said, adding that the results of the investigation will not be made public in full. 

“But obviously we will transmit part of that. We will make public whatever information we can,” he said.

Given UNRWA’s growing scandals and perennially precarious financial position, JNS asked Dujarric whether Guterres has shown any proclivity to shutting down UNRWA and folding it into the larger U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), which handles all refugees around the world outside of the Palestinian sphere.

Dujarric, though, insisted that “the needs are not going to change. The situation would be the same.” 

Left unsaid was that the needs would remain the same only if the UNHRC keeps in place UNRWA’s unique structure, which includes over 40% of its staffing being made up of local employees, something radically out of line with other U.N. agencies. UNRWA also spends a substantial part of its budget on the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. UNHRC gives no such status to the descendants of refugees.

“It is not for the secretary-general to just move these organizations and change their mandates,” said Dujarric.

Asked why Guterres treats the folding of UNRWA as an apparent taboo and has not broached the subject with member states, as he does with myriad other issues, Dujarric said, “It’s not that it’s taboo. The focus right now is on serving the millions and millions of people—the two million in Gaza and, of course, the others outside of Gaza who need help.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Monday he had canceled a meeting with UNRWA Commissioner-General Phillipe Lazzarini scheduled for later in the week.

Sigrid Kaag, the recently-appointed U.N. coordinator for Gaza relief and reconstruction, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. The council is to hold a meeting on Wednesday at the request of Algeria to discuss the International Court of Justice’s ruling last weekend in South Africa’s case against Israel related to Jerusalem’s prosecution of the war against Hamas.

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