UNRWA Head Calls for Agency’s Continued Existence Despite Staff’s Alleged Involvement in Hamas Attack in Israel

Toshiyuki Fukushima / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent
UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks at the agency’s headquarters in East Jerusalem on Wednesday.

JERUSALEM — The head of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees called for the continued existence of the entity despite the alleged involvement of some of its local employees in the October attack by Hamas in Israel.

“UNRWA is the main operational organization in Gaza,” U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Wednesday. “We used, before the war, to provide human development services, which mean public-like services — education, social protection, safety net.”

Headquartered in East Jerusalem, UNRWA has 30,000 employees, 13,000 of whom are employed in the Gaza Strip.

Lazzarini, a Swiss national, has more than 30 years of experience in humanitarian assistance with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, before being appointed to the current position in 2020.

During the interview in the agency’s headquarters, Lazzarini, 60, emphasized UNRWA’s role as “the only lifeline for the Palestine refugees providing education, health, social safety net and basically the hope of [a] better future.”

The allegations triggered Israel to call for UNRWA’s dismantling, but Lazzarini said, “If UNRWA will be dismantled, the impact would not only be in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank, in Jordan, in Syria, in Lebanon.”

Regarding the 12 local employees suspected of being involved in the attack, Lazzarini said they have “not only betrayed UNRWA, but they have betrayed their own community.”

In response, UNRWA immediately terminated the contracts with them, and an independent investigation team is reviewing the entire process of the organization, he said.

The attacks caused the United States, Japan and others to suspend their financial contributions to UNRWA. However, Lazzarini said, “I’m confident that many countries who have taken this decision will resume their support to the agency” after seeing the group’s immediate steps and actions.

“It’s a war of all the superlatives in terms of the number people killed, number of children killed, the level of destruction, the level of movement, and all of this in a very short period,” Lazzarini said about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. “We have a situation of man-made famine.”