Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is defiant in the face of Israeli demands that he resign following Israeli allegations—still unproven noted Financial Times on Feb. 4—that UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel. Lazzarini told FT from Jordan that he would continue as UNRWA’s commissioner general as long as he believed he was able to “support the people” and was “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. “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].” He described the decisions by donors to cut funding to the agency as “rash,” “irrational” and driven by domestic considerations because of the polarizing impact of the Israel-Hamas war. But after speaking to several foreign ministers, Lazzarini said he believed that donors were “looking at ways to re-evaluate the situation and to go back.”
“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 Oct. 7, 2023, 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 against his employees 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.
FT reported that it has seen the Israeli intelligence assessment and says that it provides no evidence for the Israeli claims, which the assessment says are based on smartphone intercepts and captured identity cards. But the U.S. has said it found them “highly, highly credible.”
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. “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.”
Indeed, South Africa included some UNRWA statistics for their Dec. 29, 2023 legal case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as it represents the primary aid organization on the ground in Gaza. Clearly upset by that, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to a group of UN diplomats over the weekend: “Many of the charges, false and unfounded, that were leveled against us in The Hague were brought by UNRWA officials.”