UNRWA head says Israel is intent on 'destroying' Palestinian refugee agency

The Commissioner-General of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.The head of the main United Nations agency supporting people in Gaza alleges that Israel is intent on “destroying” it along with the idea that Palestinians are refugees and have a right one day to return home. Philippe Lazzarini in an interview with a Swiss newspaper accuses Israel of having a “long-term political goal” of eliminating the agency created decades ago to assist Palestinians who fled during the war over Israel’s creation.
Philippe Lazzarini has been refusing to resign after some members of UNRWA staff were accused of involvement in the October 7 attacks. Credit: AP

The head of the United Nation's main agency supporting people in Gaza has claimed Israel is set on "destroying" the organisation, along with the idea that Palestinians are refugees who have a right to return home one day.

In an interview with Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Philippe Lazzarini said Israel has a "long-term political goal" of eliminating UNRWA.

The aid agency was created more than 70 years ago to assist Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation.“At the moment, we are dealing with an expanded, concentrated Israeli campaign, which is aimed at destroying UNRWA," Mr Lazzarini said in the interview published Saturday.

His remarks provided his most sweeping pushback yet against Israeli accusations that the agency ignored alleged attempts by Hamas to infiltrate its Gaza operation. Mr Lazzarini, who has served as UNRWA's commissioner-general since 2020, said Israel apparently believes that “if the aid agency is abolished, the status of the Palestinian refugees will be resolved once and for all — and with it the right of return”.

Rafah in October 13 2023 (left) and January 14 2024 (right), showing how the population has grown from 280,000 to more than 1.5 million. Credit: Planet Labs PBC

The fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants was a key point of dispute between Israelis and Palestinians in previous failed peace talks more than a decade ago.

Israel rejects Palestinian demands to allow descendants of refugees to return to what is now Israel, arguing it would dilute Israel's Jewish majority.

In response to Mr Lazzarini’s claims, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lior Haiat said “the problem is not the campaign. The problem is Hamas infiltrating UNRWA’s activity in the Gaza Strip”. Israel has alleged that 12 of UNRWA's thousands of staff members participated in the October 7 Hamas attack that sparked the war in Gaza. The United States, the agency's largest donor, the UK and a number of other countries suspended funding for UNRWA as a result. Without that money from the US and other key backers — totalling $438 million (£348 million), or more than half this year’s expected funding — Mr Lazzarini said UNRWA will have to halt operations in April.

As world leaders look at alternative ways of aiding Gaza, it is not clear how UNRWA's central role in sheltering and supporting hundreds of thousands of people would be shifted to organisations with a far smaller presence inside the besieged territory.

About 80% of Gaza's people have been displaced, and medical, food and other aid allowed into the territory is far below what came in before the war. “Nobody else can do what UNRWA is doing,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week. When UNRWA was created, it was meant to provide health care, education and welfare services to about 700,000 Palestinians. Today, it provides such services to about 6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. All of those areas will be affected when UNRWA halts operations, Mr Lazzarini said. In his interview, he said Israel’s government has applied pressure in multiple ways in what he called its attempt to destroy the agency. “The Israeli parliament, for example, has introduced a bill to ban the UNRWA headquarters from Jerusalem,” he said.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah. Credit: AP

“They no longer want to exempt UNRWA from VAT in the future. Israeli authorities have ordered contractors at the port in Ashdod to stop handling certain food deliveries for UNRWA. And all these demands come from the government.”

Israel also wants his resignation, Mr Lazzarini said — a demand that he said no other government has made during the agency’s current crisis. Israel has long accused UNRWA of collaborating with Hamas or turning a blind eye to the militant group’s activities. Throughout the war, it has released images of tunnels built next to UNRWA facilities. UNRWA denies collaborating with Hamas. It has dismissed the employees accused in the October 7 attacks and launched investigations. The agency says 158 of its employees, out of a Gaza staff of 13,000, have been killed in the war.

On Friday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant released new allegations against UNRWA, saying Israeli intelligence had “significant indications” that more than 30 additional agency workers participated in October 7. He alleged that nearly 1,500 workers, or 12% of the agency’s work force, were members of Hamas or the Islamic Jihad militant group, and that more than 230 were in the groups' armed wings. “UNRWA has lost legitimacy and can no longer function as a UN body,” Gallant said. He said he ordered Israeli authorities to begin working with organisations that could replace UNRWA. The UN agency did not comment on Mr Gallant’s latest accusations but has said it regularly provides the names of its workers to Israel and takes action against anyone found to be violating UN neutrality rules.

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