UNRWA chief warns of ‘monumental disaster’ looming in Gaza

More than 16 countries suspended aid to the UN Palestinian refugee agency because of Israeli allegations

A Palestinian refugee from the sanitary department of the UN Relief and Work Agency walks through a refugee camp in Lebanon. EPA
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The UNRWA's commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini said on Thursday that he fears the situation in Gaza is on the “edge of a monumental disaster” that could have significant consequences for peace, security and human rights in the region.

Mr Lazzarini said in a letter to the President of the UN General Assembly that the Palestinian aid agency has reached breaking point after Israel’s repeated calls to dismantle it and the freezing of funds by donors at a time of “unprecedented humanitarian needs in Gaza”.

He said calls made on Thursday by the Israeli government for the UNRWA’s closure are not about the agency’s neutrality, but about “changing the long-standing political parameters for peace” set by the world body in the occupied Palestinian territory.

“They seek to eliminate UNRWA’s role in protecting the rights of Palestine Refugees and acting as a witness to their continuing plight,” Mr Lazzarini said.

He appealed to the UN General Assembly to bring human rights and international law back to the centre of multilateral action, “beginning with the catastrophic situation in Gaza that has worsened by every measure in recent weeks”.

Mr Lazzarini said Israeli authorities have made concerted attempts to misleadingly associate the UNRWA with Hamas, while also seeking to interfere with the agency's operations.

This includes the Israeli Land Authority's demand for the UNRWA to leave its Kalandia Vocational Training Centre in East Jerusalem – a centre granted to the agency by Jordan in 1952 – and to pay a fee for using it, which exceeds $4.5 million.

Israel's Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has announced plans to cancel the UNRWA's tax exemption benefits, customs officials have halted the shipment of UNRWA materials, and an Israeli bank has frozen its account.

“In the short term, dismantling UNRWA will undermine UN efforts to address Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and worsen the crisis in the West Bank, depriving over half a million children of education and deepening resentment and despair,” said Mr Lazzarini.

French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna, who is leading the UNRWA review on behalf of the UN Secretary General, told reporters in New York that her team started work on February 13 and had sent letters to Israeli and Palestinian officials days ago requesting meetings, which she called “absolutely necessary".

She said she also plans to meet as many countries as possible, especially donor nations.

UN chief Antonio Guterres announced this month that Ms Colonna would lead the review, which will be conducted by three independent research organisations.

Mr Lazzarini had requested an independent review of the agency after Israeli allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff took part in the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in southern Israel.

More than 16 countries suspended aid to UNRWA because of the allegations.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 6:07 AM