Former UNRWA chief denies accusations of wrongdoing

Replaced head of UNRWA alleges the agency is target of a political campaign, says has never faced such "extreme attacks" in his 28 years of humanitarian activity.

ZURICH - The former head of the United Nations' Palestinian aid agency, who resigned in the face of an inquiry into misconduct allegations, has denied wrongdoing and said his agency was the victim of a political campaign.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has faced budgetary difficulties since last year, when the United States, its biggest donor, halted its aid of $360 million per year. The United States and Israel have both accused UNRWA of mismanagement and anti-Israeli incitement.

Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, a Swiss diplomat, was replaced on Wednesday pending completion of a review of "management-related matters" at the agency.

"I have rejected these allegations from the start and will continue to do so," Krahenbuhl said in an interview with Swiss broadcaster RTS on Wednesday evening. "There is no corruption, fraud or misappropriation of aid."

He said he had never faced such "extreme attacks" in his 28 years of humanitarian activity.

Krahenbuhl was notified in March that an investigation was under way by the UN Secretariat in New York "based on allegations received against UNRWA personnel relating to unsatisfactory conduct", an UNRWA spokeswoman said.

Krahenbuhl, who took over the UNRWA post in 2014, was previously director of operations at the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium have separately suspended payments to UNRWA over the management issues that are now under investigation. The agency's spokeswoman says it still needs $89 million to keep operating until the end of this year.

The agency has faced unprecedented political pressure since the election of Donald Trump as US president. The Trump administration, which has close ties with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and counts pro-Israel US Evangelicals as a key support base, has pledged to cut its contributions to UNRWA to zero where it had previously been the largest donor.

UNRWA was established by the UN in 1949 to provide relief to the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced during the 1948 Middle East war, which led to the creation of Israel. Its mandate is renewed every few years in the UN General Assembly.

UNRWA assists more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

US and Israeli officials, however, accuse UNRWA of perpetuating a false belief among millions of indigenous Palestinians that they will return to the lands their families were ethnically cleansed from, by Jewish immigrants from Europe, during the founding of Israel.

The "right of return" for Palestinian refugees is seen as a pillar of the Palestinian national struggle, but Israel claims such a mass influx of Palestinians to land that is now in modern-day Israel would spell an end to the "Jewish State".

Israeli officials are on record saying they would prefer that Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees absorb them in the event of a peace deal between Palestine and Israel.