Palestinian relief agency head deplores 'short-sighted' calls for closure

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, attends an informal EU Development Ministers Council, in Brussels

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) -The head of UNRWA said on Tuesday calls for it to be dismantled were short-sighted and that terminating the mandate of the agency that provides essential services to Palestinian refugees would deepen the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Israel has said UNRWA, which has helped Palestinians for over 70 years, is not fit for purpose and major donors have suspended funding after allegations that 12 of UNRWA's thousands of Palestinian employees were suspected of involvement in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that touched off the Gaza war.

"I have talked to the member states about all these calls to have UNRWA dismantled, to be terminated. I have warned about the impact, I have said that these calls are short-sighted," UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said after meeting member states at the United Nations in Geneva.

Even prior to the Israeli allegations, Israel had repeatedly called for UNRWA to be dismantled, arguing that it fosters anti-Israeli sentiment among its staff.

UNRWA, which a spokesperson for the agency said had about two more weeks of funding before some programmes might be disrupted, strongly disputes this.

"There is absolutely no other U.N. agency or international NGOs which have been tasked over the last two decades to provide government-like services like education to hundreds of thousands of children," Lazzarini said.

UNRWA was established in 1949 following the war of Israel's founding, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes. Nearly the entire Gaza population now relies on UNRWA for basics including food, water and hygiene supplies.

In several Arab countries around the Middle East, UNRWA supplies some basic services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, such as healthcare and education.

Shutting down UNRWA would not just impact the Gaza crisis, Lazzarini said. "If we want to give a chance to any future (post-conflict) transition to succeed, we need also to make sure that the international community has the tools, and one of the tools is UNRWA."


Lazzarini has held extensive consultations with donors, including a trip to Gulf countries and Brussels, in recent days in a bid to plug UNRWA's funding shortfall of some $440 million.

Some donors, such as the United States and Britain, have indicated they will not resume support until the U.N.'s internal investigation into the allegations ends. A preliminary report is due to be published in the next several weeks.

"We will keep closely in touch with the progress of that investigation, and that will inform our decision," Leo Docherty, a British junior foreign office minister, told Britain's parliament on Tuesday.

A French diplomatic source said Paris was trying to get European Union partners to reverse their decisions to suspend funding, saying there was no alternative to UNRWA.

"We have full confidence in this United Nations agency which for us plays a crucial role for the Palestinian populations, but we will also be extremely serious in the examination which will be carried out by UNRWA itself of the situation of the agents who were implicated," French foreign ministry deputy spokesperson Christophe Lemoine said.

UNRWA spokesperson Juliette Touma said that so far donors had not reversed their decision to pause funding, which might force difficult decisions in late February.

"The loss is as it was - half of our operational budget. So the question is where will we be in a couple of weeks and what decisions are we forced to make - what will we have to close, what will we have to shut down?" she said.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; additional reporting by Andy MacAskill in London, John Irish in Paris and Emma Farge in Geneva; editing by Alex Richardson, Andrew Cawthorne and Mark Heinrich)