Text size

The first Israeli citizen to be employed by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in the organization's 52-year history will join its legal affairs department later this month.

The appointment of Allegra Pacheco, a lawyer with dual Israeli and American citizenship, is groundbreaking, a senior UNRWA official told Ha'aretz.

MK Ahmed Tibi (Arab Movement for Renewal) said Friday that as he regarded Israelis as "mainly responsible" for the Palestinian refugee problem, which UNWRA works to allieviate, he hopes "there will be more and more Israelis who are willing to know [their] agony and suffering."

UNRWA, which is the main provider of health, education and relief services for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, employs some 22,000 staff, more than 99 percent of whom are locally-recruited Palestinians. The remainder are international personnel, recruited from all over the world. However, prior to Pacheco's appointment, no Israeli citizen had ever been appointed.

Pacheco's Israeli nationality was not a consideration when selecting her for the post, the head of UNRWA's General Legal Division, James Lindsay, said this week.

Born and raised in New York, Pacheco is a member of the Israel Bar, the New York State Bar, and the U.S. Federal Second District. Though UNRWA is unlikely to make direct use of Pacheco's membership of the Israel Bar - the UN is generally immune to court procedures - Lindsay said, "The fact she knows her way around [the Israeli legal system] could come in handy." She may be able to "advise on some particular court procedures," he said. "We have no reason to suspect there will be any particular difficulties" due to Pacheco's Israeli nationality, he added.

Pacheco, who is replacing the field legal officer at UNRWA's East Jerusalem office while she is on maternity leave, will be employed under a temporary contract. She is joining a team of approximately 10 lawyers, most of whom are based at UNRWA's headquarters in Gaza.

Experienced in the field of human rights, Pacheco was the first and only Jewish Israeli to open a law office in the Palestinian autonomous area. She has defended Palestinians in Israeli courts against house demolitions, land confiscations and illegal detentions. In 1999, a year after Amnesty International selected her as one of its 300 human rights defenders worldwide, she helped win a landmark Supreme Court ruling banning certain methods of interrogation.

In an interview posted on the Indymedia Web site last month, Pacheco said she became an Israeli citizen in order to be accepted at the Israel Bar, a decision she described as one of the most difficult in her life. "I'm not a Zionist, and taking on Israeli citizenship is the most Zionist thing a Jew can do. I sat on that for several months.

"Do I take on Israeli citizenship and become a lawyer and then I can help in a very concrete way? Or do I not take on citizenship and then I won't be a lawyer and I could be active but less effective? It was the lesser of two evils. I felt I made the right move. As a lawyer, I felt I had a stronger platform for helping people."

Pacheco first became active in defending Palestinian human rights as a university student. In 1988, while studying at Columbia Law School in New York, she served an internship with Israeli lawyer Leah Tsemel, a veteran defender of Palestinians. The experience, she says in the interview, left her very inspired.

Pacheco is also quoted recalling her move to Israel in 1993 after the signing of the Oslo agreements, when she assumed there was one year of occupation left. She intended to contribute to the struggle, then use her corporate experience (from a New York firm) and work on joint ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.

Pacheco, who would not comment on her new appointment, recently completed a peace fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University, where she worked on a book about Palestinian human rights during the Oslo peace process.

Pacheco, who lives in Bethlehem, recently married Palestinian human rights activist Abed al-Ahmar, who has been suspected by Israeli authorities of being an activist in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He has been in administrative detention four times; Pacheco met al-Ahmar when she defended him as his lawyer.