ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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UNRWA chief decries ‘short-sighted’ calls for closure, says it would be a ‘disaster’ for Gaza

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks to the press after a briefing to diplomats on the situation in Gaza, at the United Nations Offices in Geneva, on February 13, 2023. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks to the press after a briefing to diplomats on the situation in Gaza, at the United Nations Offices in Geneva, on February 13, 2023. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini says calls to dismantle the agency are short-sighted and that terminating its mandate would weaken the world’s ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“I have talked to the member states about all these calls to have UNRWA dismantled, to be terminated. I have warned about the impact, I have said that these calls are short-sighted,” Lazzarini says after meeting member states at the United Nations in Geneva.

Major donors have suspended funding after allegations that 12 of UNRWA’s Palestinian employees took an active part in the October 7 Hamas massacre, and that hundreds have ties to terrorists, in findings revealed late last month.

The accusations are the latest in a long line of Israeli complaints about the UN agency, including that it allows anti-Israeli incitement to be taught in its hundreds of schools and that some of its staff collaborate with Hamas.

UNRWA strongly disputes this.

Prior to the grave allegations, some Israeli authorities had long argued for defunding the agency, saying that its near uniqueness in the world — granting refugee status not just to the first generation of refugees but to their descendants — perpetuated the conflict and a culture of dependence among Palestinians.

The Trump administration suspended funding to the agency in 2018, but US President Joe Biden restored it.

Over the weekend, Israel announced that troops found a subterranean data center for Hamas directly under the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, complete with an electrical room and living quarters for the Hamas IT staff, and with electricity wiring from UNRWA offices leading directly underground.

The agency claimed it had no idea.

“There is absolutely no other UN agency or international NGOs which have been tasked over the last two decades to provide government-like services like education to hundreds of thousands of children,” Lazzarini says.

Closing UNRWA would not just impact the current humanitarian crisis, he adds. “If we want to give a chance to any future (post-conflict) transition to succeed, we need also to make sure that the international community has the tools, and one of the tools is UNRWA.”

Lazzarini calls for an independent investigation once the conflict between Israel and Hamas is over, looking into the tunnel allegations and the destruction of United Nations premises in the Gaza Strip.

“Maybe after this cataclysm which has hit the region in Gaza, it might be time now to genuinely find a political solution, and it would be a disaster that, just before it, we get rid of… UNRWA,” Lazzarini told reporters.

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