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Attacks on UNRWA Not About Its Neutrality, Says UNRWA Chief

Philippe Lazzarini. Credit: Naureen Hossain/IPS

NEW YORK, Apr 24 2024 (IPS) - The UN Palestinian refugee agency welcomed the recommendations made in the report from the independent investigation led by Catherine Colonna and warned of new and continuing concerns that threaten the agency’s operations.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini spoke to reporters on Tuesday. He was in New York to speak before the Security Council, which recently convened to discuss the status of UNRWA, where he warned of the “reluctant disregard” for UN staff and premises in the region since the current outbreak of violence in Gaza on October 7.

He noted that over 160 UNRWA buildings have been damaged, and 180 UN staff members have been killed during this time. The premises that have been vacated are now being used by military groups from both sides of the conflict, including Hamas and Israeli military forces.

Lazzarini remarked that the attacks on UNRWA—literal and rhetorical—were motivated not by concerns for its neutrality but were “primarily motivated to strip Palestinians from the region”.

Where UNRWA’s support has taken the greatest hits, there has been in support from donors. Since late January, more than sixteen countries suspended their support to UNRWA in the wake of accusations that some of its staff members were involved in the October 7 attack in Israel. Support had been suspended under the stipulation that while the agency was under investigation, donors had to temporarily freeze funding. Since the release of the interim report from the Colonna investigation, Lazzarini stated that “a number of countries” have resumed their support of UNRWA to the extent that the agency is funded through the month of June.

Lazzarini also told reporters that his focus now was to bridge the funding gap left by the United States, which was UNRWA’s biggest donor, and was among the first to suspend its support. The US is stipulated to freeze its funding to UNRWA until March 2025. Should this suspension be long-lasting, Lazzarini warned that it would have a “sustainable impact” on UNRWA funding and operations.

He remarked that “grassroots solidarity through digital fundraising” has bolstered support for UNRWA. The agency has received 50–100 million USD in donations since the current hostilities.

UNRWA staff on the ground continue their work under dangerous circumstances and even under questions of the agency’s neutrality. The ongoing attacks against the Palestinians raise the question of whether UNRWA can or should maintain neutrality under the circumstances. Lazzarini noted that UNRWA staff and the communities they serve are “deeply anxious of the possibility that UNRWA could be dismantled. UNRWA has been a lifeline not only for the community, but for their families,” Lazzarini said.

Lazzarini’s press briefing also followed the public release of the report from the independent investigation into UNRWA, led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna. The report is the result of a nine-week investigation into the agency’s operations and conduct to assess its neutrality as a UN entity. In short, the report makes several key recommendations to address concerns over transparency in communications and accountability, management reform, staff neutrality, and cooperation with other UN agencies, among others.

With regards to the report, Lazzarini said that UNRWA would keep member states regularly informed of their plans to implement the recommendations made in the Colonna report, while also adding that the success of these recommendations would require the full support of donors.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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