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Republicans ask UNRWA head to testify publicly before Congress

“It is now more important than ever that the American people hear from you directly in a public setting,” the Republican letter says.

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at a press briefing on June 1, 2023 in New York. Credit: Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at a press briefing on June 1, 2023 in New York. Credit: Evan Schneider/U.N. Photo.

Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee called on Wednesday for the head of the U.N. Palestinian aid agency to testify publicly about its alleged ties to Hamas.

Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee’s chair, and Reps. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) wrote to Philippe Lazzarini informing the commissioner-general of UNRWA that his offer to testify behind closed doors wasn’t enough.

“Many members of this committee are gravely concerned but sadly, unsurprised, by allegations that employees of UNRWA participated in the horrendous Oct. 7 attack and that thousands of employees have familial or direct ties to Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” the lawmakers wrote.

“We are outraged by recent reporting that a Hamas military installation and server room is located directly beneath UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters,” they added. “It is now more important than ever that the American people hear from you directly in a public setting.”

The committee Republicans first wrote to Lazzarini on Jan. 15 asking him to testify about allegations that Hamas was stealing U.N. aid and amid longstanding concerns about whether UNRWA was wittingly or unwittingly aiding the terrorist group.

Since then, Israel has leveled more serious and direct allegations against UNRWA, including that 30 of its staffers participated directly in the Oct. 7 attacks and that more than 10% of its 13,000 employees in Gaza are members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The United States and 16 other countries and the European Union have suspended aid to UNRWA in response.

In a response to the committee sent two days before the Biden administration cut off aid to the agency, the director of UNRWA’s Washington office said that as a U.N. official with “privileges and immunities,” Lazzarini would not comply with the committee’s request. 

The response also mentioned “the security risks to our staff posed by answering certain questions in an unclassified setting,” offering for Lazzarini to answer questions in writing or to meet in a closed, members-only setting.

McCaul and his colleagues rejected that argument. “We must first point out that U.N. privileges and immunities do not forbear voluntary testimony,” they wrote.

They also called out Lazzarini’s claim that he could not speak in public, noting that the UNRWA head had previously appeared before the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) in 2022. 

“If you are willing to appear before the AFET, you surely can and would be willing to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, especially given the United States’ long-term and considerable financial support to UNRWA,” the letter concludes.

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