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Head of UN agency for Palestinians defies Israeli calls to quit

The head of the beleaguered UN agency for Palestinian refugees said he would stay in post as long as possible, defying Israeli demands for his resignation following allegations that a dozen of his Gazan staff took part in Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel.

The allegations — still unproven — have caused the US and 14 other donors to suspend about $440mn of funding to the agency, UNRWA, and brought intense scrutiny on to its work at a time when it is providing vital aid to nearly 2mn Palestinians in the besieged Gaza strip.

Philippe Lazzarini told the Financial Times he would continue as UNRWA’s commissioner general as long as he believed he was continuing to “support the people” and “conveying the voice for the Palestinian refugees”.

“The day I have the feeling that it becomes counterproductive to vis-à-vis the constituencies I represent, I will rethink and look at it,” he said.

Lazzarini plans to travel to oil-rich Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, in a bid to secure emergency funding.

Speaking from Jordan, he described the decisions by donors to cut funding to the agency as “rash”, “irrational” and driven by domestic considerations because of the polarising impact of the Israel-Hamas war.

Palestinian men and children in Rafah on Gaza’s border with Egypt call for continued international support for UNRWA © AFP/Getty Images

But after speaking to several foreign ministers, Lazzarini believed that donors were “looking at ways to re-evaluate the situation and to go back”.

He warned that the suspension of funding could leave the agency unable to pay a monthly salary bill of approximately $60mn for 30,000 staff — including teachers, healthcare workers and others across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the occupied West Bank and Gaza — after February.

“I’m hoping that the Gulf states step up,” Lazzarini said. “But I’m also hoping that some of the [donor] countries would start to review their decision [to suspend funding].”

The 75-year old agency has long had to fend off attacks by parts of the Israeli political establishment that want UNRWA disbanded. They have for years argued that its 1949 mandate to care for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that created Israel has perpetuated, rather than helped resolve, the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict.

“It is true, in general, no one in Israel likes UNRWA’s mandate — and the more dogmatic they are, the more they want UNRWA to be eliminated,” said Lazzarini.

After October 7, which Lazzarini described as the 9/11 of the Middle East, UNRWA has become “a kind of objective of this war — that the objectives of the war would not be achieved if UNRWA is not eliminated”.

Lazzarini said he took the allegations seriously. But he added that he could not comment on the progress of an investigation by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, a body independent of his agency.

He said Israel had not presented evidence of its allegations to UNRWA, adding that the UN agency had been forced to respond to leaks in the media of an Israeli intelligence assessment that at least 12 of its Palestinian employees had taken part in the Hamas raid. These included one accused of kidnapping a woman and another said to have seized the body of a slain soldier.

The intelligence assessment, which has been seen by the FT, provides no evidence for the claims, which it says are based on smartphone intercepts and captured identity cards. But the US has said it found them “highly, highly credible”.

The allegations build on years of criticism by rightwing Israeli politicians that UNRWA textbooks valorise violent resistance to the Israeli occupations; that some of its employees have posted antisemitic or pro-Hamas statements on social media; and that some of its facilities have been used to attack Israeli soldiers.

“UNRWA is self-perpetuating. It is self-perpetuating also in its desire to keep alive the Palestinian refugee issue,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation of UN ambassadors this week, alleging that UNRWA was “totally infiltrated” by Hamas.

At least 152 UNRWA employees have been killed during Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza, and several schools have been hit by the Israeli military, which said it was responding to attacks from within them.

More than 27,000 Gazans have been killed in the offensive, according to Palestinian health officials, and the UN has warned of the risk of famine and widespread disease in the strip that is home to 2.3mn.

Lazzarini said the agency, which employs 13,000 Palestinians in Gaza, sends an annual list of employees to the Israeli government and has never received any official complaints during his four-year tenure.

In response to the allegations, made to him on January 18 by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, he fired nine of the staff and the UN launched its investigation. UNRWA will next week announce who it has selected to conduct a separate independent review of the agency’s risk management processes.

“Is there something we could have done differently? I don’t know,” Lazzarini said. “Are we paying the price for having been vocal in drawing attention about the plight of the people in Gaza, of this humanitarian disaster, unfolding on our watch? Maybe this might have contributed to, accelerate or amplify, the criticism.”

South Africa drew on UNRWA reports documenting the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in the case it launched at the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocide, which the Jewish state vehemently denies. The accusations were made public the same day that the ICJ ordered Israel to comply with international law on genocide and limit harm to Palestinians in Gaza. The court stopped short of calling for an immediate end to the military offensive.

“Many of the charges, false and unfounded, that were levelled against us in The Hague were brought by UNRWA officials,” Netanyahu told the diplomats this week.

Lazzarini said the agency’s daily, sometimes hourly, contact with Israel’s military continued unabated as UNRWA co-ordinates the delivery of humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave.

That, he said, gave him some hope that at least some parts of the Israeli establishment understood the value of the agency.

He said that as long as there was no political solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there would be no alternative to UNRWA and the services it provides, given its “capacity, understanding of the social fabric, the manpower [and] even credibility”.

“What would happen if the agency would disappear, even beyond the current crisis?” he said. “Even if UNRWA disappears, the refugee status remains. Politically, these people still keep their refugee status. It will not go [away] because UNRWA is going.”

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