UNRWA chief says Israel waging campaign to ‘destroy’ Palestinian refugee aid agency

Israel is waging a concerted campaign aimed at destroying UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, claimed in an interview published Saturday.

Speaking to the Swiss newspaper group Tamedia, Lazzarini said: “Right now we are dealing with an expanded, concerted campaign by Israel aimed at destroying UNRWA,” the main aid body in the Gaza Strip.

“It is a long-term political goal because it is believed that if the aid agency is abolished, the status of the Palestinian refugees will be resolved once and for all — and with it, the right of return,” he said, referring to the demand of the descendants of Palestinians who left their homes during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence to receive a right to return to Israel. “There is a much larger political goal behind this.”

“Just look at the number of actions Israel is taking against UNRWA,” he added, citing measures in the Israeli parliament, moves to remove the agency’s VAT exemption and orders for contractors at Israel’s port of Ashdod to “stop handling certain food deliveries for UNRWA.”

“And all these demands come from the government,” he said.

Furthermore, Lazzarini said that more than 150 UNRWA installations have been hit since the Gaza war began.

Following the discovery that at least 12 UNRWA staffers directly took part in the October 7 massacre – which saw 1,200 people killed, mostly civilians, and 253 taken hostage – and at least another 30 provided assistance, Israel has called for Lazzarini to resign.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday that of the 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza, at least 12 percent are affiliated with the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad groups.

“1,468 workers are known to be active in Hamas and [the Palestinian Islamic Jihad], 185 UNRWA workers are active in the military branches of Hamas and 51 are active in the PIJ military branch,” he said in a briefing with foreign press.

Lazzarini has refused to resign, saying that Israel was alone in calling for him to quit and there was “no reason” to comply with a single other UN member state’s demand for him to go, “especially since my resignation would not improve the situation at UNRWA.”

“The criticisms are not concerned with me personally, but with the organization as a whole. The calls for resignation are part of the campaign to destroy UNRWA,” he said.

Israel recently discovered a Hamas tunnel housing a major server center under UNRWA’s evacuated Gaza City headquarters. Lazzarini said the organization could not have known about it, noting the tunnel was 20 meters below ground and UNRWA, as a humanitarian organization, did not have the capabilities to examine what was underground in Gaza.

The underground network was found to be drawing electricity from the UNRWA headquarters.

The recent allegations of UNRWA terror ties have led multiple donor countries to announce funding freezes, leading to concerns that the agency, which says that it is the main conduit for aid for millions in the Strip amid the Israel-Hamas war, could stop operating in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East within weeks.

This appears to have taken even Israeli officials aback, with some warning the repercussions of UNRWA’s closing prior to the end of the current war between Israel and Hamas could have dire consequences for most of Gaza’s population, which has been displaced and put in risk of starvation since the beginning of the Israeli counteroffensive following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught in Israel.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by extending refugee status to millions of descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced out of homes in today’s Israel at the time of the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, rather than limiting such a status only to the original refugees, as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

Israel and other groups have also long argued that UNRWA school materials glorify terrorism and anti-Israel incitement.

(Source: Agencies)