Israel wants to end refugee status of millions of Palestinians, UNRWA chief claims

Philippe Lazzarini says that the UN agency for Palestinian refugees is there because 'a political solution does not exist'

A Palestinian woman and her children outside the walls of the  UNRWA  elementary school in Beach Camp July 14,2014. They fled their home  from Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza as thousands of Palestinians in Gaza fled for safer ground  as Israel threatened a ground invasion and escalated its now six-day campaign of air-strikes to stop rocket fire from the Hamas-run territory. 
Roughly 4,000 residents of northern Gaza had left their homes southward to take refuge in United Nations facilities in Gaza City, said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UNÕs Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). (Photo by Heidi Levine for The National).
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Israel's demands to close UNRWA are not motivated by humanitarian concerns but to end the refugee status of millions of Palestinians, the head of the UN agency warned on Wednesday.

“They seek to change the long-standing political parameters for peace in the occupied Palestinian territory,” Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, told a ministerial-level meeting of the Security Council in New York.

“The government of Israel seeks to end the agency’s activities.”

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi echoed Mr Lazzarini's comments and pointed out that the “Israeli witch hunt of the agency...started long before the allegations against the 12 members of its staff were made. The agency has been the target of a political assassination campaign for years".

Israel's attack on the UNRWA, Mr Safadi added, is meant to “kill the Palestinians' refugee rights, to kill the Palestinian issue and to kill the discussion that there is an occupation that is illegal, that is inhumane, that must end”.

Israel's UN envoy Gilad Erdan said that, in practice, the UNRWA is creating a sea of Palestinian refugees, millions of them “indoctrinated” to believe that Israel belongs to them.

“And the end goal is to use these so-called refugees and their libellous right of return, a right that doesn't exist, to flood Israel and destroy the Jewish state,” Mr Erdan said.

“UNRWA is the world's biggest advocate for a one-state solution, a Palestinian state from the river to the sea... and Israel cannot and will not allow UNRWA to continue in Gaza as it did in the past," he argued.

UNRWA was created in 1949 by the UN General Assembly to help Palestinian refugees following a war surrounding the founding of Israel, when 700,000 Palestinians were displaced. Many fled to Gaza.

Mr Lazzarini told the council that Israel has banned the UN agency from delivering aid to northern Gaza.

“Our staff are barred from co-ordination meetings between Israel and humanitarian actors,” he explained.

Latest from the Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

He also reported that “UNRWA premises and staff have been targeted since the beginning of the war”.

According to the latest UNRWA report released on Tuesday, 178 employees have been killed during the war in Gaza and 163 centres in the enclave have been damaged, with only nine of 24 of the agency's healthcare centres still operational.

The report also said staff members had reported being subjected to ill-treatment including beatings, threats of rape and electrocution, and were forced to strip naked.

The Israeli military has said it acts according to national and international law and those it arrests are given access to food, water, medication and proper clothing.

In January, Israel accused 12 UNRWA employees of involvement in the October 7 attacks, although evidence supporting these claims has not yet been publicly provided.

Guyana’s UN ambassador Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett expressed concern over the continuing campaign to discredit and dismantle the UNRWA.

“It is simply unacceptable to put forward accusations without providing credible supporting evidence,” Ms Rodrigues-Birkett said.

After the January allegations, the UNRWA dismissed the employees implicated and the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services launched an investigation.

The UN also commissioned an independent review led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna to assess how the UNRWA adheres to principles of neutrality.

The group is expected to present its findings on April 20.

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Updated: April 18, 2024, 8:54 AM