‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief

UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting on UNRWA at UN headquarters in New York on April 17, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 24 April 2024

‘We will leave no stone unturned to shield UNRWA from ferocious attacks,’ says agency chief

  • Philippe Lazzarini says many supporters of each side in Israeli-Palestinian conflict fail to feel empathy for those on the other and so demonize them
  • ‘The peace process, per se, is not enough; what we need is healing,’ he tells Arab News

NEW YORK CITY: The head of the UN agency that helps to provide aid and development for Palestinian refugees told Arab News on Tuesday that no effort will be spared to protect it from “ferocious attacks” by its critics.

And as protests related to the war in Gaza continue to cause friction around the world, including growing rows on US college campuses, Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said many of the supporters of each side in the conflict are unable to feel any empathy for those on the other, and so they demonize them.

“The peace process, per se, is not enough,” he added. “What we need is healing.”

Lazzarini said he has been struck by the fact that “empathy in this part of the world is most of the time unilateral. It’s either empathy only for the Palestinians, with no understanding where the Israelis are coming and the trauma that Oct. 7 has created in the country, or empathy only for Israelis, with absolutely no empathy for the Palestinians.”

He said his main message to US students is the need to show “compassion and empathy” for both peoples, “because ultimately, we expect that Israelis and Palestinians will live, and deserve to live, in peace and security.”

UNRWA has never been under attack to the extent it has been in recent months, Lazzarini said.

“It has never been in a situation where at same time 18 countries are reviewing or freezing their contributions,” he added. “It has never been the target of an open campaign for the total dismantlement of its activities in Gaza, and possibly beyond. What we are going through is quite unique in its ferocity.”

Agency staff and the communities they serve are “deeply anxious” about the possibility it might be weakened or even dismantled, he said, pointing to an opinion poll in which between 80 and 90 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank expressed such fears.

“We will leave no stone unturned and we will bring the conversation where it needs to be to avoid the agency’s dismantlement,” said Lazzarini.

He added that this has been the mindset since the crisis the agency is facing was brought to the attention of the UN General Assembly in March, and was on display again last week during a meeting of the Security Council requested by Jordan in response to long-running attempts by Israeli authorities to force the agency out of Gaza.

“Now we are looking at the next, best avenue to shield the organization from these kind of attacks,” he added.

The agency, which provides aid and other services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and throughout the region, was thrown into crisis in January when Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA workers took part in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel.

In a report published on Monday, an independent team of investigators led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, reported that Israeli authorities have yet to provide any evidence to back up their allegations, and had not previously expressed concerns about any individuals named on the lists of UNRWA staff they had been receiving since 2011.

In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli allegations, the US, the biggest single funder of the agency, and several other major donors immediately put their funding for the organization on hold. In all, 18 UN member states suspended or paused donations, while others imposed conditions, placing the very future of the agency in doubt. Many later resumed their donations.

Speaking to reporters at the end of an official visit to New York, Lazzarini once again said that he believes the attacks on UNRWA were not truly motivated by concerns about the neutrality of its staff, but rather the primary objective was to strip Palestinians of their refugee status.

Israel has long accused the agency of deliberately perpetuating the refugee status of millions of Palestinians, an allegation Lazzarini describes as “nonsense.”

“Basically, it is as if you would say that the humanitarian response in a conflict zone is perpetuating the conflict,” he said.

“The reality is that it is perpetuated because of the absence of a political solution. UNRWA was geared to be a temporary organization, hoping to end its activities the day there is a lasting and fair political solution. And here we are, 75 years later; it’s certainly not UNRWA perpetuating the status (but) our collective inability to promote a solution.

“If we have a genuine desire for a two-state solution, and we revitalize the implementation of such a solution, UNRWA’s temporary nature can be reinstated and hence UNRWA can pave the way for the future (Palestinian) state to provide the services the agency is providing.”

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza in October, 180 agency staff have been killed, more than 160 UN premises have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 400 people have been killed while seeking shelter under the flag of the UN.

Premises UNRWA staff were forced to abandon reportedly have been taken over and used for military purposes by the Israeli army, Hamas or other armed groups. Several agency workers have been arrested or mistreated, some have been tortured.

Lazzarini urged the Security Council to order an independent investigation into such incidents and for those responsible for the “blatant disregard” they have displayed toward UN premises, staff and operations in the Gaza Strip to be held accountable, so as to avoid setting “a new low standard in future conflict situations.”

The attacks on UNRWA and its work continue even as fears grow that warming weather will bring with it disease and other health risks. This is especially a concern in southern Gaza, which has become the last refuge for more than a million people forced by fighting to flee other parts of the territory, and where Lazzarini said “garbage collection has become a priority for our colleagues to prevent disease outbreak,” amid the “key anxiety” among people of a threatened, “possibly looming, upcoming military offensive” by Israel, “which seems to be back on the table.”

The report submitted by Colonna’s team after its investigation, which was ordered by the UN to assess whether UNRWA was doing all it could to ensure the neutrality of more than 32,000 workers, includes more than 50 recommendations, including improvements to internal oversight, enhanced in-person training, and additional support from donor nations.

Lazzarini welcomed the report and said he is committed to implementing its recommendations. It is clear from its findings, he said, that “the agency, in reality, has already a number of systems to deal with neutrality issues, far ahead of the average UN agencies or even (nongovernmental organizations), and because of the complexity of the environment we are operating in we need to be extremely vigilant, and we can always do more.”

He expressed his hope that as a result of the report and the measures that will be put in place, “the last group of donors will get the necessary confidence to come back” to the agency.

However, he noted that US will not provide any more donations until at least March 2025 because of a lack of political support for UNRWA in Washington, and added that “my task now is to try to bridge the gap” in financing that currently exists “and see that funding covered until the end of June.”

Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

Updated 9 sec ago

Two-day Israeli raid on West Bank city leaves 12 Palestinians dead

JeNIN: A two-day Israeli raid on the occupied West Bank city of Jenin killed at least 12 Palestinians, health authorities and an AFP correspondent said Thursday.
Israeli troops withdrew from the city early Thursday, the correspondent said, after carrying out raids in the city’s refugee camp and exchanging fire with masked gunmen in a nearby neighborhood in the city center.
The Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah said Israeli forces had killed 12 people including four children, and wounded 25 during the fighting which began on Tuesday morning.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa and medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported that surgeon Usaeed Jabareen, from Jenin’s Khalil Suleiman government hospital, was among those killed on Tuesday.
An AFP correspondent on Thursday saw five bodies at the hospital morgue, including Jabareen’s.
A schoolteacher and a student were also among the dead, Wafa reported, quoting hospital director Wissam Bakr.
Several of the bodies were draped in flags and carried among crowds of Palestinians, including armed militants, through the streets as gunfire rang out.
Both Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned the raid.
Israel’s army said on Wednesday troops had “exchanged fire with armed men and killed a number of terrorists, including two terrorists who threw explosives at the forces.”
The army said it had raided the house of Ahmed Barakat, who was suspected of involvement in an attack on an Israeli civilian last year.
Meir Tamari, 32, was killed in May 2023 at the entrance to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, medics and military officials said at the time.
Jenin has long been a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, and the Israeli army routinely carries out raids in the city and adjacent camp.
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has seen a surge in violence for more than a year, but especially so since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7.
At least 518 Palestinians have been killed in the territory by Israeli troops or settlers since the Gaza war broke out, according to Palestinian officials.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 12 Israelis in the West Bank over the same period, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
The Gaza Strip has been gripped by more than seven months of war since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Hezbollah fighter killed in Israeli strike on south Lebanon: source

Updated 4 min 57 sec ago

Hezbollah fighter killed in Israeli strike on south Lebanon: source

  • Hezbollah announced the death of its member Muhammad Ali Nasser Faran from Nabatieh

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike killed a Hezbollah fighter in southern Lebanon, a source close to the powerful Islamist movement said on Thursday.
Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, has traded near daily cross-border fire with Israeli forces since the Palestinian group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel sparked the war in Gaza.
Hezbollah later announced the death of its member Muhammad Ali Nasser Faran, from Nabatieh, and a source close to Hezbollah said he was killed in the strike.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency had reported that a “drone targeted a car on the road leading to Nabatieh,” a city close to Lebanon’s border with Israel.
“The driver was killed,” it said, noting that three children in a nearby school bus were injured.
A member of the civil defense told AFP that the children received “light injuries as a result of the broken windows of the bus that was taking them to school” and that they were taken to hospital.
Since the start of the cross-border fighting, at least 429 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly militants but also including 82 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israel says 14 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed on its side of the border.
The violence has raised fears of all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006.

Top UN court to rule Friday on South Africa Gaza ceasefire bid

Updated 29 min 50 sec ago

Top UN court to rule Friday on South Africa Gaza ceasefire bid

  • The rulings of the ICJ are binding but it has no power to enforce them

THE HAGUE: The UN’s top court said it will rule Friday on a request by South Africa to order Israel to implement a ceasefire in Gaza.
South Africa has petitioned the International Court of Justice for emergency measures to order Israel to “cease its military operations in the Gaza Strip” including in Rafah city, where it is pressing an offensive.
The rulings of the ICJ, which rules on disputes between states, are binding but it has no power to enforce them — it has ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine to no avail, for example.
But a ruling against Israel would increase the international legal pressure after the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor said Monday he was seeking arrest warrants for top Israeli and Hamas leaders.
In hearings last week, South Africa charged that what it described as Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza had hit a “new and horrific stage” with its assault on Rafah, the last part of Gaza to face a ground invasion.
The Rafah campaign is “the last step in the destruction of Gaza and its Palestinian people,” argued Vaughan Lowe, a lawyer for South Africa.
“It was Rafah that brought South Africa to the court. But it is all Palestinians as a national, ethnical and racial group who need the protection from genocide that the court can order,” he added.
Lawyers for Israel hit out at South Africa’s case as being “totally divorced” from reality that made a “mockery” of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention it is accused of breaching.
“Calling something a genocide again and again does not make it genocide. Repeating a lie does not make it true,” top lawyer for Israel Gilad Noam said.
“There is a tragic war going on but there is no genocide,” he added.
Israeli troops began their ground assault on parts of Rafah early this month, defying international opposition including from top ally the United States, which voiced fears for the more than one million civilians trapped in the city.
Israel has ordered mass evacuations from the city, where it has vowed to eliminate Hamas’s tunnel network and its remaining fighters.
The UN says more than 800,000 people have fled.

Israel says ready to resume truce talks as Gaza war grinds on

Updated 40 min 59 sec ago

Israel says ready to resume truce talks as Gaza war grinds on

  • The week started with the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court seeking arrest warrants over war crimes
  • Newly released video showed five female Israeli soldiers, tied up and some with bloodied faces, in the hands of Palestinian militants

Jerusalem: Israel bombed Gaza on Thursday even as it said it was ready to resume stalled talks on a truce and hostage release deal with Hamas to pause the war raging since October 7.
Global pressure for a ceasefire has mounted on Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as three European countries said Wednesday they would recognize a Palestinian state.
The week started with the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court seeking arrest warrants over war crimes against Netanyahu and his defense minister as well as three Hamas leaders.
Israel has angrily rejected those moves, voicing “disgust” over the ICC move and labelling a recognition of the State of Palestine now a “reward for terrorism.”
But domestic pressure has also risen as supporters of hostages trapped in war-torn Gaza again rallied outside Netanyahu’s office, passionately demanding steps to free them.
A newly released video showed five female Israeli soldiers, tied up and some with bloodied faces, in the hands of Palestinian militants during the attack more than seven months ago.
The three-minute clip, taken from a militant’s body camera footage, was released by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum on Wednesday after the Israeli army lifted censorship on it.
“The footage reveals the violent, humiliating and traumatising treatment the girls endured on the day of their abduction, their eyes filled with raw terror,” the forum said.
Netanyahu vowed to continue fighting Hamas to “ensure what we have seen tonight never happens again,” and more bombardment rained down overnight on targets in the devastated Gaza Strip.
But his office also said that the war cabinet had asked the Israeli negotiating team “to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages.”
The previous round of truce talks, involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators, ended shortly after Israel launched its attack on Gaza’s far-southern city of Rafah early this month.
Israel went ahead with the assault on the last Gaza city so far spared a major ground offensive in defiance of global opposition, including from top ally the United States.
Washington voiced concerns that 1.4 million Palestinians who had been trapped in crowded tent cities and shelters there would be caught in the line of fire.
Israel has since ordered mass evacuations from the city, and the UN says more than 800,000 people have fled.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Wednesday the Rafah operation “has been more targeted and limited” than feared and “has not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas.”
But he stopped short of saying that Israel had addressed US concerns, adding that Washington was closely watching ongoing Israeli actions.
Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi has meanwhile given a bleak assessment of the war so far to a meeting of the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, according to a report by Israel’s Channel 13.
He reportedly said that Israel has “not achieved any of the strategic aims of the war — not conditions for a hostage deal, we haven’t toppled Hamas, and we haven’t allowed residents of the (Gaza) periphery to return safely home.”
The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on October 7 resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 124 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,709 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Heavy fighting raged again in Gaza, where an AFP team reported fresh strikes early Thursday around Rafah.
Troops in the city had “dismantled a number of tunnel shafts and launchers in the area, and eliminated several terrorists during close-quarters encounters,” said the military.
Urban combat has also flared again in northern areas, including Jabalia, which Israeli forces first entered several months ago.
Israeli forces there “targeted several Hamas terrorists during strikes on military compounds” and located AK-47 and sniper rifles, grenades and other weaponry, the military said.
Israel has also imposed a siege that has deprived Gaza’s 2.4 million people of most drinking water, food, medical and fuel supplies.
The sporadic arrival of aid by truck slowed further after Israeli forces took control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
Jordan and others have kept up aid airdrops, and relief goods have been shipped in via a US-built pier, but many trucks were quickly swarmed by desperate crowds.
Israel has faced ever greater opposition to the bloody war around the world, and pro-Palestinian protests have swept US and other university campuses.
Israel reacted with fury after Ireland, Norway and Spain said they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28, a move praised by Palestinians and across the Arab world.
Israel recalled its envoys to Dublin, Oslo and Madrid and summoned their ambassadors for a rebuke.
Most Western governments say they are willing to recognize Palestinian statehood one day, but not before thorny issues such as final borders and the status of Jerusalem are settled.
The White House said Biden opposed unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, saying it should be realized “through direct negotiations.”
Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris called the October 7 attack “barbaric” but stressed that “a two-state solution is the only way out of the generational cycles of violence.”

Vessel targeted by ‘missile’ attack off Yemen: security firms

Updated 23 May 2024

Vessel targeted by ‘missile’ attack off Yemen: security firms

  • The vessel was “suspiciously approached” 68 nautical miles (125 kilometers) off Hodeidah
  • No injuries or damages reported

SANAA: A missile attack targeted a commercial vessel transiting southwest of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah without causing any damage or casualties, maritime security firms said on Thursday.
The vessel was “suspiciously approached” 68 nautical miles (125 kilometers) off Hodeidah, Ambrey said, without identifying the ship or the flag that it was flying.
“The vessel had undergone what she described as a ‘missile attack’ at the location,” it added, noting that “no injuries or damages were reported.”

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, run by the Royal Navy, also reported an incident at the same location, with “a missile impacting the water in close proximity” to the ship.
“Vessel and all crew are safe and proceeding to next port of call,” it said in an advisory.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have launched a flurry of attacks against ships since November.
The group, which controls the Yemeni capital Sanaa and much of the country’s Red Sea coast, say their campaign is in solidarity with Palestinians amid the Gaza war.
Their attacks have prompted US and British reprisal strikes and the formation of an international naval coalition to protect the vital trade route.
On Wednesday, US military forces shot down four drones in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said.
“It was determined these systems presented an imminent threat to US coalition forces, and merchant vessels in the region,” CENTCOM posted on social media platform X.