Palestinians protest against the expropriation of land by Israel in West Bank on Saturday. Agence France-Presse
An internal ethics report has alleged mismanagement and abuses of authority at the highest levels of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees even as the organisation faced an unprecedented crisis after US funding cuts.
The allegations included in the confidential report by the agency’s ethics department are now being scrutinised by UN investigators.
The agency − the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) − said it is cooperating fully with the investigation and that it cannot comment in detail because the probe is ongoing.
AFP has obtained a copy of the report which describes “credible and corroborated” allegations of serious ethical abuses, including involving UNRWA’s top official, Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl.
It says the allegations include senior management engaging in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”
One senior official named in the report has left the organisation due to “inappropriate behaviour” linked to the investigation, UNRWA said, while another has resigned for what the agency called “personal reasons.”
UNRWA said in response to AFP questions that it “is probably among the most scrutinised UN agencies in view of the nature of the conflict and complex and politicised environment it is working in.”
“Over the past 18 months, UNRWA has faced immense financial and political pressure, but its entire staff body has steered it, serving 5.4 million Palestine refugees through the most unprecedented financial crisis in its near 70 years of history,” it said.
The report was sent to the United Nations secretary general in December and UN investigators have since visited UNRWA’s offices in Jerusalem and Amman, collecting information related to the allegations, sources familiar with the matter said.
Krahenbuhl said in a statement to AFP that “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 agency provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
It employs around 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.
The Israeli military has installed the face scanners as part a multimillion dollar upgrade of the Qalandia crossing that now allows Palestinians from the West Bank with work permits to zip through with relative ease.
But while the high-tech upgrades may have eased entry for Palestinians going to Israel for work, critics say they are a sign of the ossification of Israel’s 52-year occupation of the West Bank and slam the military’s use of facial recognition technology as problematic.
Qalandia is one of the main crossings for the thousands of Palestinians who enter Israel each day for a variety of reasons, including work, medical appointments or family visits.
Among Palestinians, the heavily fortified crossing is seen as a symbol of Israeli occupation and has long been notorious as a human logjam, where workers would wait for as much as two hours in order to pass into Jerusalem.
Palestinian labourers from around the West Bank who had permits to work in Israel would wake up in the middle of the night to arrive at the crossing before daybreak. Metal fenced entryways were often packed with people before dawn, waiting for the gates to open. Human rights groups deplored the conditions at Qalandia.
Israel’s Defence Ministry poured over $85 million into upgrading Qalandia and several other major checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank in recent years - part of a strategy it says is meant to maintain calm by improving conditions for Palestinians.
Thanks to the upgrades, crossing through Qalandia takes roughly 10 minutes, even during the early morning rush hour, and has the feel of an airport terminal. While much of the rest of Jerusalem is still asleep, hundreds of Palestinian labourers stream through each morning on foot or riding bikes, buses and cars into Israel for work.
Jamal Osta, a 60-year-old from the northern West Bank city of Nablus, works as a blacksmith in an industrial park in east Jerusalem not far from Qalandia.