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Israel and the UAE working together to eliminate UNRWA: Report

Report in Le Monde says Abu Dhabi would be 'rallying to a long-standing demand from Israel,' which has long insisted the Palestinian refugee agency perpetuates conflict
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), US President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (R) at a White House signing ceremony where the UAE, as well as Bahrain, recognised Israel, 15 September 2020 (AFP)

Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been working together to eliminate the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) without solving the issue of Palestinian refugees, French newspaper Le Monde has reported.

According to Le Monde, this process has been underway since Israel and the UAE announced normalisation between the two countries in August.

According to the report, Emirati officials are weighing up a plan to gradually eliminate UNRWA, without making it conditional on a resolution of the refugee issue. This is despite the UAE having been a major funder of UNRWA in 2018 and 2019, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to offset US President Donald Trump's halting of funds to the agency, which had brought it to the verge of bankruptcy.

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The US, historically UNRWA's largest single donor, had cut its contributions from $360m to $60m in 2018 and then to zero for 2019.

At the time, Pierre Krahenbuhl, then UNRWA's commissioner-general, had condemned the US withdrawal of funds.

"At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip," Krahenbuhl had said in a statement.

Addressing the alleged plans by Israel and the UAE to eliminate UNRWA, Le Monde journalist Benjamin Barthe tweeted out part of the report, which read: "In doing so, Abu Dhabi would be rallying to a long-standing demand from Israel, which insists that the agency is obstructing peace by nurturing refugees in the dream of returning to the lands from which their parents were driven in 1948."

Le Monde tweet

UNRWA was established 70 years ago to supply aid to Palestinian refugees and its mandate is renewed every three years.

Trump's administration, along with Israel, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In October this year, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, claimed that textbooks used by schools run by UNRWA contained inciteful content, demanding that the UN "end the incitement and antisemitism in UNRWA schools and publicly pledge to eliminate any terrorist infrastructure in its buildings".

UNRWA disputes such accusations and says that the services it provides would otherwise not be available to Palestinians.

The agency was set up in the years after more than 700,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled their lands during the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel. It provides schooling and medical services to millions of impoverished refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as the Palestinian territories.

UN ethics report

While the main UN agency dealing with refugees - UNHCR - concentrates on their voluntary repatriation or local integration and resettlement, UNRWA maintains millions of people as refugees in the long term, expanding the numbers year after year.

Last November, the UN General Assembly approved the extension of UNRWA’s mandate for three years, a week after Krahenbuhl had resigned over a UN ethics report which alleged mismanagement and abuses of authority among senior officials of the agency. Afterwards, Israel had called for UNRWA's closure.

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The ethics report claimed that, since 2015, members of UNRWA's inner circle had been consolidating their power, but that the situation escalated from the beginning of 2018, coinciding with the US decision to remove its funding, serving "as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the 'clique'." 

It further claimed that these developments led to an "exodus of senior and other staff" and a work culture "characterised by low morale, fear of retaliation... distrust, secrecy, bullying, intimidation and marginalisation...  and management that is highly dysfunctional, with a significant breakdown of the regular accountability structure".

Much of the report focused on allegations surrounding the conduct of Krahenbuhl, who took up the post in March 2014, citing a range of alleged corrupt and unprofessional activities.

In June 2019, Krahenbuhl had expressed concerns about the impacts on Palestinian refugees of the Trump administration's approach to Middle East peacemaking.

"There's no doubt that, last year, a combination of the announcement on Jerusalem and the US embassy move plus the funding cut to UNRWA - that created, undoubtedly, significant levels of anxiety among Palestinian refugees," Krahenbuhl had told reporters in New York.

Shortly after the details of the UN ethics report became known, the Netherlands and Switzerland suspended their funding of UNRWA. They were followed in August 2019 by New Zealand.