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Israeli envoy: ‘UNRWA must be defunded, dismantled’

Phillipe Lazzarini, who heads the U.N. agency, told reporters that “many” of the 16 countries that suspended aid “would like to come back.”

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), briefs reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York, March 4, 2024. Photo by Mark Garten/U.N. Photo.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), briefs reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York, March 4, 2024. Photo by Mark Garten/U.N. Photo.

The head of UNRWA, the scandal-plagued, Palestinian-only refugee aid agency, told the U.N. General Assembly that his agency is “at a breaking point” after the United States and others suspended funding, pending an investigation of UNRWA staff’s ties to Hamas. The Israeli envoy to the global body told UNRWA good riddance.

“After all that has been exposed about UNRWA, it’s very clear,” Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told the General Assembly on Monday. “UNRWA will never again operate in Gaza as it has prior to Oct. 7. Its role in Gaza is finished and it must be replaced immediately. UNRWA must be defunded and dismantled.”

Phillipe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, said at the urgent General Assembly session that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “openly” stated “that UNRWA will not be a part of post-war Gaza.”

“Part of this campaign involves inundating donors with misinformation designed to foster distrust and tarnish the reputation of the agency,” Lazzarini said. He added that his agency faces a “deliberate and concerted campaign” to undermine its operations.

‘Protecting’ UNRWA

Lazzarini insisted that his agency cannot survive without a cash injection, after major donor countries suspended aid in the wake of Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA employees participated directly in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel.

Israel has further alleged that there are more extensive ties between UNRWA’s Gaza staff members, 13,000 of whom are from the Strip itself, and terror groups in the enclave. 

The Jewish state released video footage of an UNRWA worker helping kidnap the body of an Israeli on Oct. 7 and audio of two phone calls that UNRWA teachers made that detail and celebrate their participation in the killing and hostage-taking spree.

Lazzarini told the General Assembly that Israel has not turned direct evidence over to him. He said he fired the 12 accused staffers “to protect” UNRWA.  

During a Monday evening press conference, Lazzarini told reporters that he has “no regrets” about dismissing the workers, even as some $450 million in aid was suspended in light of the seriousness of the accusations. Lazzarini had drawn criticism from Israel critics that he drew attention to the situation by firing the dozen or so employees based on what critics say is little evidence.

UNRWA and other U.N. officials first stated the agency would run out of money at the end of February. They have since pushed that deadline back twice, although the organization’s financial situation does not appear to have improved.

Lazzarini stated at the press conference that “many” of the 16 countries that suspended aid “would like to come back.” 

“Most of the time, the decision is based not on foreign policy considerations, but it’s based more on optics or domestic opinion in the various countries,” he said, allowing that “supporting UNRWA can be divisive.”

Philippe Lazzarini
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), briefs reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York City on March 4, 2024. Credit: Mark Garten/U.N. Photo.


Several investigations are underway probing the charges that Israel leveled against UNRWA. There is an ongoing, internal U.N. investigation and a review, for which Lazzarini called, of UNRWA’s neutrality and risk management.

Critics say the latter aims to whitewash the agency’s missteps and extensive criticism of Israel, noting that one of the three Scandinavian research institutes selected by the United Nations and UNRWA to help shape the review has previously dismissed such charges against UNRWA, and the other two have criticized Israel, including since Oct. 7.

UNRWA has been accused repeatedly of kowtowing to Hamas and even collaborating with the terror group, which stores weapons in tunnels it built under U.N. facilities. In recent months, the Israeli military has documented an advanced Hamas data center underneath UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City.

The U.N. agency has also drawn criticism for its unique mandate, which confers refugee status upon the descendants of those displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars in perpetuity and sustains for them the so-called Palestinian “right of return,” which would eliminate the Jewish majority in Israel.

“We are functioning hand-to-mouth. Without additional funding, we will be in uncharted territory, with serious implications for global peace and security,” Lazzarini said on Monday.

Despite its purported peril, UNRWA managed to compile a report—first detailed by The New York Times—on alleged Israeli abuses of Gazan prisoners after Oct. 7, Lazzarini told reporters.

UNRWA interviewed some 100 former detainees after they crossed back into Gaza following their releases, Lazzarini said.

The report has not been made public. Lazzarini said it “has been shared with the relevant human rights entities dealing with detention.”

JNS asked Lazzarini how UNRWA had the capacity to conduct such an extensive investigation amid a war, during which UNRWA officials have repeatedly asserted that the agency has no capacity to investigate Hamas’s construction of tunnels under UNRWA facilities and other usages of its property by terror groups. 

Lazzarini told JNS that his organization deals primarily with education and health care, seeming to imply that the report of alleged Israeli abuses falls under the latter category.

“I do not have the expertise to look at what is underneath,” Lazzarini said of the tunnels beneath UNRWA facilities. “Not only do I not have the expertise, I do not have the mandate. And if it is a peace and security issue, make sure such a mandate is given to those who can inspect underneath.”

“We need to have a board of inquiry, a proper investigation because it’s not OK that the U.N., which belongs to the member states, be blatantly disregarded,” Lazzarini added. “We need to know what happened.”

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