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Chief of relief agency UNRWA pushes back against Israeli accusations

UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on UNRWA at UN headquarters in New York on April 17, 2024.
UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a UN Security Council meeting on UNRWA at UN headquarters in New York on April 17, 2024.

The head of the embattled U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees said Wednesday that as famine is taking hold across Gaza, the agency is facing an Israeli campaign to push it out of the occupied Palestinian territories and prevent it from carrying out its humanitarian mission.

"In Gaza, the government of Israel seeks to end UNRWA's activities," Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told the U.N. Security Council. "The agency's requests to deliver aid to the north are repeatedly denied. Our staff are barred from coordination meetings between Israel and humanitarian actors."

He also accused Israel of targeting UNRWA staff and premises, saying that 178 staff have been killed, and that more than 160 UNWRA premises, mostly used as shelters, have been damaged or destroyed, killing more than 400 people since the war started in October.

Lazzarini said Israeli security forces have also detained UNRWA staff, who have described mistreatment and torture in detention.

"We demand an independent investigation and accountability for the blatant disregard for the protected status of humanitarian workers, operations and facilities under international law," Lazzarini told the council. "To do otherwise would set a dangerous precedent and compromise humanitarian work around the world."

Israeli criticism

Israeli officials have criticized UNRWA for years, alleging that Hamas uses its schools for terrorist activities and promotes an anti-Israel curriculum. After the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel, the rhetoric intensified.

Lazzarini said Israeli allegations against UNRWA are politically motivated because Israel wants to end the refugee status of millions of Palestinians.

"Accusations that UNRWA deliberately perpetrates refugee status are false and dishonest," he said. "The agency exists because a political solution does not."

He said dismantling the agency would in the short term deepen the humanitarian crisis and speed the onset of famine, and in the long-term, hurt reconstruction of Gaza.

In January, Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA staffers were involved in Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attacks. The staffers were immediately fired, and an internal investigation was launched. But in the aftermath, 16 donors, including top contributor the United States, suspended contributions totaling around $450 million.

Since then, several donors have resumed funding, but the U.S. Congress has frozen further contributions until at least March 2025. Lazzarini said the agency currently has funding to cover operations through June.

"The time has come to defund UNRWA," Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan told the council. He accused the Palestinians of having "hijacked" and "weaponized" the agency shortly after its creation in 1949.

"UNRWA's goal is not aid or real education," Erdan said. "In practice, UNRWA is creating a sea of Palestinian 'refugees' — millions of them — indoctrinated to believe Israel belongs to them. And the end goal is to use these so-called refugees and their libelous 'right of return' — a right that doesn't exist — to flood Israel and destroy the Jewish state."

Since 1948, U.N. resolutions have called on Israel to facilitate the return of Palestinian refugees and provide compensation for their loss of land and property.

Jordan requested Wednesday's meeting. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said with 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza facing hunger and famine, UNRWA is needed more than ever.

"The suffering is beyond words," Safadi said. "Only one agency has the knowledge, the ability and the infrastructure to help ease it. It is UNRWA, the backbone of humanitarian efforts in Gaza, and Israel wants to break it. Do not allow it to do so."

While Washington has suspended its funding, it says UNRWA is still necessary.

"We recognize UNRWA's indispensable role in distributing humanitarian assistance and maintaining continuity of care in Gaza, and we urge UNRWA's continued humanitarian access in Gaza and the lifting of onerous restrictions on its work," U.S. envoy Robert Wood said.

"The United States is gravely concerned about the dire food insecurity and the very real risk of imminent famine. UNRWA is critical to averting this."

He urged UNRWA to implement reforms and strengthen its management and oversight.

The General Assembly established the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, in 1949 to assist some 700,000 Palestinian refugees displaced in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that broke out after Israel became a state in May that year.

Today, it operates not just in the Gaza Strip and West Bank but also in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where there are large Palestinian refugee communities. Nearly 6 million Palestinians are eligible for UNRWA services, which include education and health care.