UN agency helping Palestinians in Gaza seeks support against Israel’s demands for its dissolution

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Palestinians look for survivors following Israeli airstrike in Nusseirat refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Doaa AlBaz)

By EDITH M. LEDERER AP

The head of the U.N. agency that has helped millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank for decades urged the Security Council on Wednesday to ensure its survival as Israel again demanded its dissolution, accusing the agency of becoming part of Hamas’ “terror war machine.”

Philippe Lazzarini told the council that dismantling the agency known as UNRWA would deepen Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and speed up the onset of famine. International experts have warned of imminent famine in northern Gaza and said half the territory’s 2.3 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation if the six-month Israeli-Hamas war intensifies.

Lazzarini said ending the agency’s operations also would have other “lasting repercussions” on Gaza, leaving a half million children without education and “fueling anger, resentment and endless cycles of violence.” In addition, it would jeopardize the transition when the war ends by depriving Gaza’s population of essential services, including health care, food and other humanitarian aid, he said.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan claimed, without providing evidence, that UNRWA has been totally infiltrated by Hamas, which controlled Gaza before the war. He also accused UNRWA of being part of a Palestinian plot to annihilate Israel and becoming “the world’s biggest advocate for a one-state solution” run by Palestinians.

“Today in Gaza, UNRWA is Hamas and Hamas is UNRWA,” Erdan said.

”Israel cannot and will not allow UNRWA to continue in Gaza as it did in the past,” he said, telling the council there are alternative aid organizations and U.N. agencies that can help Palestinians in the territory. “The time has come to defund UNRWA,” he said.

The clash over UNRWA follows Israeli allegations that 12 of the agency’s 13,000 workers in Gaza participated in the surprise Oct. 7 Hamas attack into southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people and forced 250 others into captivity.

The allegations led to the suspension of contributions to UNRWA by the United States and more than a dozen other countries.

It also sparked two investigations — one by the U.N.’s internal watchdog of the 12 UNRWA staff who have been fired and a second, independent probe into how the U.N. agency ensures its neutrality.

A report on the second investigation is to be released Monday, and Lazzarini pledged to implement its recommendations and strengthen safeguards to ensure UNRWA is neutral.

He argued that the real aim of Israel’s efforts to end UNRWA’s operations is “about ending the refugee status of millions of Palestinians.” He called allegations that UNRWA is perpetuating their refugee status “false and dishonest.”

“The agency exists because a political solution does not,” Lazzarini said.

He accused the international community of containing rather than resolving the more than 75-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said when a Palestinian state that can deliver education, health care and social support is established, UNRWA’s role will be finished.

Israel got no support for getting rid of UNRWA at the Security Council meeting. All 15 council members, including the United States, Israel’s closest ally, voiced support for the agency along with Arab and European representatives.

The delighted Palestinian U.N. ambassador, Riyad Mansour, told reporters after the meeting: “Wasn’t today’s debate impressive? Everyone except one” backed UNRWA.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood said the United States recognizes “ UNRWA’s indispensable role in distributing humanitarian assistance and maintaining continuity of care in Gaza.” He called UNRWA “the bedrock of support for the most vulnerable Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.”

Wood urged Israel to end its ban on UNRWA delivering desperately needed aid to Gazans, saying “the lifting of restrictions on its work” is critical to averting famine.

Lazzarini told the council that since Oct. 7, 178 UNRWA personnel have been killed and over 160 of its premises that were mostly used to shelter Palestinians have been damaged or destroyed, killing more than 400 people. He said some UNRWA premises vacated by the agency have been used by Israeli forces, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, and its headquarters has been occupied “militarily,” amid allegations of tunnels under the premises.

“We demand an independent investigation and accountability for the blatant disregard for the protected status of humanitarian workers, operations and facilities under international law,” he said.

At the start of the council meeting, members and diplomats in the chamber observed a minute of silence in tribute to all humanitarian workers who had been killed.

Wood said the United States is “deeply concerned Israel has not done enough to protect humanitarian aid workers or civilians.”

He reiterated demands from President Joe Biden to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 4 that Israel “implement a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers.”

Lazzarini told reporters after the meeting that he has never received any documents from Israel on its allegations about Hamas’ involvement in UNRWA.

“There is a lot of disinformation going on,” he said, and allegations must be substantiated so UNRWA can take proper action.

The U.S. Congress has suspended any money for the agency until March 2025. The United States was UNRWA’s biggest donor. Lazzarini said for the current U.S. fiscal year it contributed nearly $400 million, and the agency will have to compensate for that shortfall.

He said most countries have resumed funding UNRWA, with “just a handful” waiting for Monday’s report on its operations before taking a final decision. UNRWA now has funding until the end of June, he said.

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