UNRWA head warns of ‘insidious’ Israeli campaign to dismantle agency

Appealing to the UN Security Council for protection, Philippe Lazzarini says UNRWA’s work more crucial than ever during Israel’s war on Gaza,

The head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has warned that Israel’s effort to dismantle it while a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in the bombarded and besieged Gaza Strip would have devastating consequences if successful.

Addressing the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Philippe Lazzarini said UNRWA’s work is now more crucial than ever and appealed for protection.

“Today an insidious campaign to end UNRWA’s operations is under way, with serious implications for international peace and security”, he told the 15-member body during a session called by Jordan.

This, Lazzarini said, is happening while Israel’s relentless bombing and “merciless siege have transformed Gaza beyond recognition”, with young children dying of malnutrition and dehydration as “a man-made famine” is tightening its grip across the Strip, where Israeli attacks have killed at least 33,899 people since October 7.

“Across the border, food and clean water wait. But UNRWA is denied permission to deliver this aid and save lives,” Lazzarini said.

“This outrage is occurring despite consecutive orders by the International Court of Justice to increase the flow of aid into Gaza – which can be done if there is sufficient political will,” he added, calling on the council to “make a difference”.

Lazzarini said that while UNRWA’s requests to deliver aid to northern Gaza are repeatedly denied, its premises and employees in Gaza are being targeted with a total of 178 UNRWA personnel killed since the start of the war.

The briefing was held as UNRWA has faced pressure over Israeli allegations that 12 members of its staff participated in the attacks led by Palestinian group Hamas inside Israel on October 7 that killed more than 1,100 people, with a number of Western countries cutting funding to the agency.

“To this day, Israel has provided no evidence to back up those claims to either the head of UNRWA or to the UN secretary-general,” Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, said.

“Nevertheless, the secretary-general has ordered two investigations into the matter. One is concluded and the results are expected to be released publicly on Monday,” he added.

Many countries, chiefly the United States as the largest donor, have not reinstated their UNRWA funding during what Lazzarini called “seismic change” in the Middle East.

‘Calls are about ending refugee status of Palestinians’

Israel’s UN representative Gilad Erdan claimed it is UNRWA – and not Israel – that is “creating a sea of Palestinian refugees, millions of them, indoctrinated to believe that Israel belongs to them”.

But Lazzarini reminded that the UN agency, which was established after the creation of Israel in 1948 as a temporary solution to assist the more than 700,000 Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from their homes, is the only organisation capable of delivering much-needed assistance at scale absent a political solution to the displacement of Palestinians.

“Calls for closure of UNRWA are not about the adherence to humanitarian principles, those calls are about ending the refugee status of millions of Palestinians,” he told the council.

Lazzarini spoke shortly after the UN agency released a report that detailed abuses against Palestinians detained by Israeli forces, including agency staff.

The report detailed the testimonies of more than 100 Palestinians released from Israeli detention. Abuses included being denied food, water or toilet access for hours while detainees’ hands and legs were bound. Others said they had been inappropriately searched, beaten and groped.

The report said the actions may amount to “sexual violence and harassment”.

US Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel said Washington is calling for an investigation into the issue. Rights groups have repeatedly said that past appeals from the US – Israel’s main ally – for such investigations have proven inadequate.

During the Security Council meeting, eight European countries gave a joint statement explaining why they have continued their funding.

“UNRWA is a pillar of regional stability and a beacon of hope for millions of Palestinian children, women and men,” Luxembourg’s UN ambassador, Olivier Maes, said as he delivered the joint statement.

“[UNRWA] must be maintained and deserves our continued collective support until there is a political solution,” Maes added.

The statement also offered “sincere condolences” to a record number of 178 UN staff who have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza since October 7.

Before the meeting, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Israel’s attempts to dismantle UNRWA go back many years.

“Long before October 7, UNRWA has been the target of a political assassination campaign by an Israeli government that wants to do so in order to kill the Palestinian refugees issue,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera