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Israeli envoy, UNRWA head trade blame at UN Security Council

The UNRWA head said Israel us running an “insidious campaign” to end the agency, while the Israeli ambassador said UNRWA is a “weapon” aiming to “destroy the Jewish state.”

Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question on April 17, 2024 alongside Philippe Lazzarini (left), commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Credit: Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo.
Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question on April 17, 2024 alongside Philippe Lazzarini (left), commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Credit: Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo.

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, pointed the finger at one another at the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday.

Lazzarini, whose agency’s staff is accused of having close ties to Palestinian terror organizations, said on Wednesday that the Jewish state launched an “insidious campaign” to end the global body’s Palestinian-only aid and social services agency.

Erdan countered that UNRWA is “one of the weapons” used to “destroy the Jewish state.”

The U.N. Security Council met on Wednesday to discuss the plight of UNRWA, which is in disarray due to the war in Gaza and accusations from Israel that a dozen staffers took part in Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre. Some 16 donor countries suspended funding to UNRWA.

Some of UNRWA’s donors have returned, as others await the outcome of a pending investigation. UNRWA’s largest financial supporter, the United States won’t refund the agency until March 2024 at earliest, per a bill that U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law last month.

Erdan told the Security Council on Wednesday that UNRWA is “the U.N.’s single biggest obstacle to a solution,” stressing that the agency “is creating a sea of Palestinian refugees—millions of them—indoctrinated to believe that Israel belongs to them.”

UNRWA uniquely affords refugee status not only to those who fled war, but to all of their descendants in perpetuity until a “just solution” emerges regarding their status.

Critics say the goal is to artificially create mass numbers of “refugees” in order to permanently allow for a Palestinian majority in Israel, should those “refugees” be allowed to return to Israel upon a political settlement.

All other global refugees fall under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which holds a different set of guidelines and procedures. UNHCR attempts to resettle refugees, rather than keep them in permanent refugee status.

Erdan noted that UNRWA’s refugees in Lebanon, who cannot obtain citizenship, are discriminated against across Lebanese society, with significant restrictions on employment and property ownership.

The Israeli envoy called it a “U.N.-facilitated apartheid.”

“The end goal is to use these so-called refugees and their libelous right of return—a right that doesn’t exist—to flood Israel and destroy the Jewish State,” Erdan said.

He added that “UNRWA is the world’s biggest advocate for a one-state solution—a Palestinian state from the river to the sea.”

Erdan said Israel won’t allow UNRWA to operate as it did prior to Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre.

“There are alternatives to UNRWA,” he said, putting the onus on U.N. member states to make a successful transition to other aid agencies.

He noted that ballooning “refugee” numbers made UNRWA’s already precarious financial state unsustainable. 

Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, attacked Israel on Wednesday for what he said is “an insidious campaign to end UNRWA’s operations,” with “serious implications for international peace and security.”

UNRWA demands “an independent investigation and accountability for the blatant disregard for the protected status of humanitarian workers, operations and facilities under international law,” Lazzarini said. 

More than 100 UNRWA workers have died in the Israel-Hamas war, though UNRWA is unique among U.N. agencies in that it employs a significant percentage of its staff locally. Some 13,000 Gazans work among the 30,000 total staff in the Strip.

Gilad Erdan
Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question on April 17, 2024. Credit: Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo.

Lazzarini blames Israel for the death toll and says Israel is preventing UNRWA from delivering humanitarian aid, especially to the northern part of the enclave that was evacuated during the early part of the war.

UNRWA released a report on Tuesday accusing Israel of an assortment of human rights violations regarding the detainment of UNRWA staff.

Lazzarini pledged to implement any recommendations made by an independent review group assessing issues with UNRWA’s hiring practices and neutrality. Critics say the institutions participating in the review are likely to create a whitewashed report, based on their previously announced positions on UNRWA.

Nathalie Broadhurst, France’s envoy at the meeting on Wednesday, insisted that “UNRWA must be reformed and ensure absolute respect for the principle of neutrality.”

The review group is being led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, whose report will be made public on Saturday.

Barbara Woodward, the United Kingdom’s U.N. envoy, told the Security Council that “We also emphasize the importance of UNRWA continuing robust management reform, including stronger independent oversight and better detection systems.”

London will clarify its position on UNRWA funding once it has reviewed Colonna’s report, she said.

The United States had been striking mentions of UNRWA for some time in its press and council statements. It reversed course, with Robert Wood, Washington’s deputy U.N. envoy, telling the council on Wednesday that he urged U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to “provide a full and transparent plan for how he will follow-up on Colonna’s review group report.”

“As we have conveyed, we expect the report to have clear and strong recommendations to guide UNRWA’s work going forward and prevent the prospect of staff supporting terrorism,” Wood said.

Washington “will continue working with UNRWA, other donors and hosts to implement reforms for UNRWA to remain operational as long as it is needed,” he said.

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