UN convoys looted in Rafah in absence of Palestinian police, says UNRWA chief

Philippe Lazzarini says agency faces mounting challenges as police officers stand down in fear for their lives

UNRWA commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini in Brussels on Monday, where he called for an independent inquiry into allegations surrounding the agency. AFP
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UN lorries delivering aid to Rafah in southern Gaza were looted because Palestinian police officers have refused to protect them out of fear for their lives, the commissioner general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has said.

"The coming days will tell us if, yes or no, we'll be able to continue to operate in an extraordinarily challenging environment," UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said in Brussels on Monday.

"There is a deep sense of panic and anxiety regarding the prospect of an unfolding military operation," Mr Lazzarini told reporters.

The embattled Mr Lazzarini was in the Belgian capital to inform the EU's 27 development ministers of the agency's difficult financial situation.

A number of large donors suspended funding after Israel alleged that 12 of its 30,000 staff in Gaza contributed to the Hamas-led attacks on October 7.

"I have no intention to resign," said Mr Lazzarini in response to questions about Israel's calls for him to step down. "For the time being, as long as I feel we can continue making a difference, I’ll continue to do this."

Mr Lazzarini said Israel's planned military incursion into Rafah, to where more than half of the Gaza Strip's population of 2.3 million has fled, has further complicated UNRWA's operations.

"For the first time, the UN couldn't operate with a minimum of protection, which was the local police. Because we had no local police, our trucks, our convoys at the border have been looted," he said.

"Trucks have been vandalised by hundreds of young people. The last remaining protection to keep a minimum of civil order which was local police might not be functional any more, since many of them have been killed over the last few days and [others] are more and more reluctant to be seen in these convoys."

UNRWA is facing growing administrative hurdles from Israel, with a shipment amounting to a month's supply of food blocked in port. A contractor that provided handling services in the port of Ashdod told UNRWA it could no longer continue working with the agency after instructions from Israeli authorities, Mr Lazzarini said.

As a result, a shipment from Turkey consisting of 1,049 containers of supplies including flour, chickpeas, sugar, cooking oil – enough to cover the needs of 1.1 million people for a month – was blocked in the port.

A 'cultural danger' to Hamas

Last week, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced on social media platform X that Israel was cancelling tax breaks previously offered to UNRWA. Israel has long accused the agency of contributing to the conflict by fostering Palestinian militant groups and allegations have risen sharply since October 7.

Local banks have also frozen UNRWA accounts and Israeli authorities have switched from granting visas to international staff from a yearly to a monthly basis, said Mr Lazzarini. "Last but not least, there will be a bill which will be tabled this week at the Knesset ending the UNRWA operation in Jerusalem, and the vote will take place next week," he said.

Mr Lazzarini said he was engaging with a number of donors to understand what their expectations were for them to release suspended funds amounting to $440 million. UNRWA has previously warned it may have to shut down operations across the region by next month if the money is not released.

The agency has struggled with financial difficulties for years. "If we would have had no pause in funding or freeze of funding, our cash flow would have been good until the end of July," said Mr Lazzarini. "Our cash flow will suffer as from now, as from the month of March."

A UN investigation into the Israeli accusations against UNRWA staff is ongoing, as well as a review of claims against the agency's neutrality to be headed by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna. A public report is due to be released in April.

"As an agency, we are committed to implement the recommendations of this review," said Mr Lazzarini.

The EU has also requested an audit by EU-appointed experts before it disburses a planned €82 million ($88.3 million) by early March. Mr Lazzarini said he had held "very constructive" talks with officials from the European Commission. "There is a mutual commitment to find a way to address [conditions] in order to make the release of this contribution possible," he said.

UN coordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag had been invited to attend talks in Brussels but did not show up. Her office told The National she was in Dubai on Monday and will travel next to Qatar for consultations. She is expected to attend the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on February 19.

Defunding UNRWA would be "incredibly short-sighted", Mr Lazzarini said, pointing to the agency's role in providing essential services to Palestinians across the region, including schooling and healthcare.

"We would deprive in the near future half a million children in the Gaza Strip to go back to education," he said. "The more we will wait, the more we will sow the seed for future hate and resentment."

UNRWA has "been seen as a cultural danger to Hamas", he added. "When we had a camp last summer, there were 20,000 kids who went to Hamas summer camp. We had 250,000 to 280,000 that registered in a UNRWA school. This is the alternative UNRWA can offer to places like Gaza."

Israel also claimed at the weekend it had found a Hamas tunnel under UNRWA's headquarters in Gaza, which staff evacuated on October 12. Mr Lazzarini said the agency was unaware of the tunnel.

"We have heard that many of our installations were used by Hamas fighters or by the Israeli army," said Mr Lazzarini, responding to a question from The National. "At the end of this war, we need an independent board of inquiry to look into all these allegations."

Updated: February 12, 2024, 8:34 PM