UNRWA is at a breaking point

Mar 7, 2024
Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East Philippe Lazzarini speaks during UNGA meeting at UN Headquarters in New York on March 4, 2024.Image: AAP/ Lev Radin/Sipa USA

It is impossible to adequately describe the suffering in Gaza. The death toll in Gaza is staggering. More than 30,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in just 150 days. 5% of the population is dead, injured or missing. Doctors are amputating the limbs of injured children without anaesthetic. Hunger is everywhere. A man-made famine is looming. It is a stain on our collective conscience that for 75 years UNRWA has had to fill a vacuum left by the lack of a political solution and a genuine peace. And yet UNRWA is now facing a deliberate and concerted campaign to undermine its operations, and ultimately end them, writes UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini.

Statement of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA to the United Nations General Assembly, March 4, 2024, New York.

Mr. President,
Excellencies,

I am here today because UNRWA, the United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees, is at a breaking point.

75 years after its creation by this Assembly as a temporary UN entity, pending a just political solution to the question of Palestine, the Agency’s ability to fulfil its mandate is seriously threatened.

Your urgent action is needed to facilitate a political solution that will bring peace to Palestinians and Israelis, and in this context alone, allow the Agency to transition.

In the meantime, the financial crisis confronting UNRWA must be resolved so it can continue its lifesaving operations.

On January 26, the International Court of Justice issued a legally binding Order indicating provisional measures in relation to Palestinians in Gaza.

It requests that the State of Israel take all measures in its power to prevent the commission of acts within the scope of Article II of the Genocide Convention.

This includes enabling the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance.

This Order was issued in the context of a war where, in a period of just five months, more children, more journalists, more medical personnel, and more United Nations staff have been killed than anywhere in the world during a conflict.

The death toll in Gaza is staggering. More than 30,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in just 150 days.

5% of the population is dead, injured or missing.

It is impossible to adequately describe the suffering in Gaza.

Doctors are amputating the limbs of injured children without anaesthetic.

Hunger is everywhere. A man-made famine is looming.

More than 100 people were killed a few days ago while desperately seeking food.

Babies – just a few months old – are dying of malnutrition and dehydration.

I shudder to think of what will still be revealed about the horrors that have taken place in this narrow strip of land.

What is the fate of an estimated 300,000 Gazans isolated in the north, cut off from humanitarian supplies?

How many people remain buried under rubble across the Gaza Strip?

What will become of the estimated 17,000 children who are orphaned, abandoned in an increasingly lawless and dangerous place?

Meanwhile, it appears that an assault on Rafah, where an estimated 1.4 million displaced people are concentrated, is imminent.

There is no safe place for them to go.

Despite all the horrors that Gazans have lived through – and that we have watched – the worst might be yet to come.

Mr. President,

On January 18, one week before the International Court of Justice ruling, the Israeli authorities informed me that 12 out of 30,000 UNRWA staff were allegedly involved in the horrific attacks of October 7.

No further information has been provided to me since that day, but the gravity of the allegations necessitated swift action. I terminated the contracts of the staff concerned in the interest of the Agency.

In parallel, an independent investigation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services was launched to establish the facts and is ongoing.
Separately, the Secretary-General commissioned an independent review of our approach to risk management and neutrality.

Despite these prompt and decisive actions, and the unsubstantiated nature of the allegations, 16 countries have paused their funding, totalling 450 million dollars.

UNRWA has no capacity to absorb financial shocks. Especially while a war rages in Gaza.

I am deeply grateful to the Member States and donors that have maintained or even increased their funding.

Thanks to them, the Agency, which is the backbone of humanitarian assistance in Gaza, can continue operating and remains a lifeline for Palestine Refugees across the region.

But for how long?

It is hard to say. We are functioning hand-to-mouth.

Without additional funding, we will be in uncharted territory – with serious implications for global peace and security.
The fate of the Agency, and the millions of people who depend on it, hang in the balance.

Excellencies,

UNRWA is facing a deliberate and concerted campaign to undermine its operations, and ultimately end them.

Operations that are mandated by this Assembly.

Part of this campaign involves inundating donors with misinformation designed to foster distrust and tarnish the reputation of the Agency.

More blatant, is the Israeli Prime Minister openly stating that UNRWA will not be part of post-war Gaza.

The implementation of this plan is already underway with the destruction of our infrastructure across the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, movement restrictions and the banning of local staff from entering occupied East Jerusalem are affecting every aspect of our services.

Attempts to evict UNRWA from its Headquarters in East Jerusalem, and from a nearby vocational training centre for Palestine Refugee youth are underway.

Draft legislation in the Israeli Knesset seeks to prohibit outright any activity by UNRWA on Israeli territory.

Mr. President,

Calls to dismantle the Agency are gaining traction among those actively seeking alternatives outside the mandate provided by General Assembly resolution 302.

Talks about handing over our entire operation, especially during the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza, tacitly reinforce the belief that the Agency can be dismantled without prejudice to the rights of Palestinians.

Let me stress what is at stake if no meaningful action is taken to correct the disastrous course we are on.

In the short term, the entire humanitarian response in Gaza will crumble.

Implementing the International Court of Justice Order and the resolutions of the Security Council calling for increased humanitarian aid will become impossible.

The resulting human suffering will be immense.

In most conflict situations, humanitarian needs can be addressed by a number of specialised entities.

In Gaza, however, UNRWA is so prominent that all partners will continue to rely on our seasoned staff.

And it is an entirely different matter to provide public-like services at scale during the inevitably long and harrowing transition from ceasefire to “Day After” in Gaza.

Governments will not invest in reconstruction until there is a clear political trajectory with time-bound measures.

Only UNRWA has the footprint and the capacity to deliver services, including education and primary healthcare at scale, in the absence of a full-fledged state authority.

Providing education to half a million deeply traumatised children living amid rubble is glaringly absent from discussions around handing over service provision in Gaza.

Dismantling UNRWA is short sighted.

By doing so, we will sacrifice an entire generation of children, sowing the seeds of hatred, resentment, and future conflict.

The notion that the Agency can be dismantled without violating a host of human rights and jeopardising international peace and security is naïve at best.

The General Assembly has given UNRWA the near impossible task of delivering high-quality, low-cost public services to Palestine Refugees in lieu of a state.

UNRWA has done this in an area under military occupation, governed by an authoritarian local militant entity, amid armed conflict, using 13,000 locally recruited personnel in Gaza.

Despite this untenable context, UNRWA makes significant efforts to uphold neutrality.

And even as its operational context has worsened and resources have dwindled, the Agency has continued to deliver on its mandate.

Mr. President,

The repeated calls by the Government of Israel to eliminate the Agency are not about neutrality.

The campaign against UNRWA is intended to shift the long-standing political parameters for peace in the occupied Palestinian territory set by the General Assembly and the Security Council, without consulting either body.

Attacks against UNRWA seek to eliminate its role in protecting the rights of Palestine Refugees and acting as a witness to their plight.

This role was highlighted by information shared in written and oral submissions before the International Court of Justice, as well as the Court’s provisional ruling, with a corresponding increase in attacks against the Agency.

UNRWA’s mandate embodies the promise of a fair and lasting political solution.

Dismantling the Agency in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, would only serve those who oppose such a solution.
Palestinian Refugees would feel, 75 years after their Nakba, that the international community is once more turning its back.

Mr. President,
Excellencies,

In conclusion, I am not advocating for UNRWA to exist forever.

The Agency was always meant to be temporary.

It is a stain on our collective conscience that for 75 years UNRWA has had to fill a vacuum left by the lack of a political solution and a genuine peace.

I would like to place three requests before this Assembly today:

· First, I ask that Member States commit to facilitating a long-overdue political process culminating in a solution that can bring peace to Palestinians and Israelis, and to chart the transition of UNRWA in this context only.

· Second, in the immediate term – and given the enormous risks in Gaza and to the entire region – I appeal to the General Assembly to ensure that the Agency receives the support it needs from relevant Member States to operate, and to close the gap between UNRWA’s mandate and funding model. The Agency cannot fulfil the mandate given by this Assembly without matching funding from its members.

· Finally, I urge those Member States that are seeking alternatives to UNRWA to do so in a way that does not compromise Palestine Refugees’ right to self-determination and aspiration to a just and lasting solution to their plight.

The past 75 years have shown us that without a political solution, wars recur, and generations of Palestinians and Israelis suffer.

The international community has enabled this vicious cycle by failing to deliver peace for decades.

This cannot continue.

Thank you.

 

Republished from UNRWA multimedia resources, March 4, 2024

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