When UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl hears people question the relevancy of his organization, he looks no further than the 526,000 pupils educated in the organization’s school as justification for its presence.
He takes pride in the fact that the highest performing student in Syria last year was a Palestinian girl from the Yarmouk refugee camp.
The Swiss diplomat has 27 years of experience in humanitarian work across the globe, including 11 years as the director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross, from July 2002 to January 2014.
He spoke with The Jerusalem Post in the week following the United States’ dramatic announcement that it was halting its payments to the organization. This was followed by statements from the Trump Administration charging that the 70-year old United Nations Relief and Works Agency was the problem and the solution for the 5.2 million Palestinian refugees.
In his conversation with the paper, Krähenbühl described an organization that provides education to 526,000 and employment to 30,000 people, to say nothing of the health and welfare services it offers.
Both Jordan and the IDF have spoken out about the importance of the organization to regional stability.
He answered questions about refugee status, staff links to Hamas and reform.
Krähenbühl divided the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from refugees that UNRWA services in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Krähenbühl said that as the head of the organization he was committed to addressing issues of reform that were within his purview.
But the one thing, he said that neither he nor the Trump Administration could do, was to “wish away” the refugees. They would exist, he said, with or without his organization until such time as a political resolution was found to the conflict with Israel.
On the possibility that Israel could cancel its long standing agreement with UNRWA operate in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Krähenbühl: We have received no notification or indication to that effect. Our schools and other services in both east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are in full operation.
All my recent conversations at senior levels in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also with COGAT, have indicated ongoing recognition and respect.
On the US announcement that it would halt its annual $360 million funding to UNRWA $1.2 billion budget?
Krähenbühl: The US has taken a decision that we deeply regret. It impacts a historically extremely generous, not uncritical, but robust and very supportive relationship and partnership. That [partnership helped] deliver immense benefits on the ground for men, women and children in a very difficult and often desperate situation, both in terms of education and health care, and the other services that we provide.
On UNRWA’s contention that the Trump Administration is defunding the organization as a pressure tactic against the Palestinian Authority, which heavily relies on its services.
Krähenbühl: It was evidently political in nature and not related to UNRWA’s performance.
It is not the first time in the history of relations between the US and the Palestinian leadership that there are differences or tensions.
But in the past, there had always been a bi-partisan consensus in Washington to protect humanitarian funding from those tensions.
I saw the shift take place after the tensions became more visible following the announcement on [the relocation of the US Embassy to] Jerusalem.
Before that, I was in Washington in November of last year. We discussed extensively with the State Department and the White House UNRWA’s operations.
I received a lot of recognition for how robustly we dealt with the discovery of two [Hamas] tunnels below two of our schools in Gaza.
We not only condemned Hamas publicly, but also dealt with it by sealing the tunnels to ensure that the staff and student security would not be impeded.
The robustness and the seriousness, with which we managed our operations was recognized. It lead to the finalization and the signing in December last year of a new framework agreement with the US.
It was a regular revising of a general framework agreement. When you sign an agreement, it is the result of weeks and months of discussion and on different issues. It [the framework agreement] was signed in the beginning of the month of December.
Once you get to that level of acceptance and recognition, it is clear that you have to look at what changed between then and the [initial] announcement in January [one month later] to cut [some of] the funding. That is where the political dimension did come in very clearly.
I am always ready to sit down and review critically anything that is within in the area of accountability and responsibility – that is, the humanitarian and management-related issues.
What I cannot do is to become involved in the politics of the way in which a country wishes to put pressure on another actor, in this case the US on the Palestinian Authority, and to use the humanitarian funding that comes to UNRWA as another piece of leverage.
On this I have no influence. There is nothing I can do about that.
On US demands for UNRWA reform.
Krähenbühl: In the case of the US, there were always discussions about performance levels. But also particularly concerns and focus and attention on how the agency was taking forward its neutrality.
We do operate in one of the most polarized conflicts on the planet and in an immensely emotionally charged context.
Everything we do or don’t do, say or don’t say is under scrutiny. If a staff member posts something with an inappropriate content on a website and or on a Facebook page. The actions that UNRWA would take or not would be under scrutiny.
When two staff members were appointed into positions within the Hamas leadership in Gaza, we investigated it. When it was confirmed, we separated these two colleagues, so we acted decisively on those matters.
Those are issues, yes, that in the past were always taken up and reviewed.
On the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee.
Krähenbühl: UNRWA was created in 1949. There was an operational definition, approved by the General Assembly [in 1949] and reconfirmed ever since. That is the basis on which we operate. In general terms, it involves persons whose regular place of residence was Palestine between 1946 and 1948 and who left, fled or were expelled from their homes and lost homes and livelihood and means of subsistence.
UNRWA’s goal was to provide protection and assistance to those populations.
On the issue of whether the UN General Assembly (GA) was correct in extending UNRWA’s mandate decades ago to include service to descendants of the 750,000 original refugees from Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Krähenbühl: There is the suggestion that Palestine refugees are the only refugees, which so to speak, inherent the status of refugees and pass them through the generations. That is just a very clear cut misrepresentation. It is simply false.
The UNHCR [Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees] deals with other refugee populations in the world. Like in the case of the Afghan refugee community that fled the Soviet invasion in 1979, and has since lived for almost 40 years in camps in Pakistan and Iran.
Of course UNHCR considers the children and grandchildren of these refugees as refugees and assists them.
So there is nothing different and nothing unique in the case of Palestinian refugees. The same applies to Somalian refugees [who] have been living for decades in Kenya, this is a point.
Now the question that then has come up, is how many refugees are there. Our figure today is between 5.3 to 5.4 million.
If someone or a country feels that the question needs to be re-discussed or assessed, that is not something for which UNRWA has a responsibility. We operate on the basis of the definitions and the mandate formulated by the UNGA.
It is not up to an individual member state to make announcements of change in that regard, nor is it to suggest that UNRWA should change its mandate.
UNRWA does not have a role in writing, defining, revising or updating its own mandate. The UNGA is accountable.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has not been brought to an end.
UNRWA was not mandated to say what the conclusion should be, how this should look. That is not our role. We focus on delivering humanitarian services. Until a solution that is inclusive of the interests of all sides is reached, we are tasked with delivering those services and are recognized internationally for the value and quality of those services.
The World Bank has described our education system as a global public good. There [are] a lot of questions that come up about what is taught in the schools. But it is the only gender balanced school system that we have in the region with attention to human rights, conflict resolution and others.
I accept that questions are raised and that we are under scrutiny for how we handle these delicate issues.
On UNRWA’s contribution as a regional employers of 30,000 people, of whom 98% are Palestinians and many of whom are refugees.
Krähenbühl: It is a factor of economic stability which is not insignificant at all and needs to be considered when one faces the risk of people losing employment as happened recently in Gaza, where we had to end 116 contracts for lack of emergency funding [after the US’s initial January funding cut.]
We employ 12,500 people in Gaza. One could say that 116 is a relatively low number. But for these individuals, [it was significant] in light of the fact that if you lose a job in the Gaza Strip, it will be extremely difficult to find one again.
That created very significant instability. We lost control of our compound to protesters for three weeks. We are not crying wolf when we say that reductions to services and employment opportunities do have impact.
Two or three years ago, we faced a much small but at that time a critical funding crisis in 2015. The prospect was that we would have to put a very large part of our work force on leave; protecting the contracts but [we would] no longer be able to pay people. That led to the central banks in the region approaching us and drawing our attention to the fact that many of our employees are loan guarantors for many people in the community and that [placing people on unpaid leave] would have ripple effects across the region.
On whether UNRWA help peoples overcome poverty or creates perpetual dependency.
Krähenbühl: There is often a notion that we keep people in a form of dependency. I could happily discuss this if we were an organization that was doing only food distribution. [But we] have 526,000 boys and girls in our education system. The highest performing student in Syria last year was a young Palestinian refugee girl, in spite of all the traumas and disasters that they face. She was born in the Yarmouk camp and had flee to study elsewhere in Damascus. That is something that should be celebrated.
Clearly the Jordanian leadership feels very strongly about [the importance of UNRWA education]. The king and the foreign minister have come out repeatedly to say that if 120,000 Palestinian boys and girls who are currently in UNRWA schools in Jordan do not have access to education in Jordan, it would become a matter of national security and stability.
On whether UNRWA helps perpetuate the conflict or exists because the conflict is unresolved.
Krähenbühl: I hear people say if UNRWA didn’t exist the issue would not exist. You cannot just wish away people and then hope the problem goes away.
It is not humanitarian organizations that perpetuate conflict. At the end of the day, the conflict has to be solved politically.
During the context of the Oslo process, there was a five to 10 year handover plan that foresaw the transfer of UNRWA installation and staff and others to the nascent Palestinian Authority, but here we are still waiting for the solution to be found.
It was never planned that UNRWA would be in existence for 70 years, and indeed it should not be the horizon that it should be in existence for another 70 years.
This can only be resolved by a negotiated process and that is inclusive of all.
The quotes from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity.