UNRWA chief Pierre Lazzarini said on Monday he had no intention of resigning and hoped the EU would continue to fund his agency, after allegations staff members were involved in the Hamas attack on Israel.
“No, I have no intention to resign,” Lazzarini, who heads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, told reporters in Brussels following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
Members of the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu have called on Lazzarini to step down after serious allegations against his staffers emerged.
“We have one government calling for (my) resignation. We might have other voices, but I haven’t heard any other government,” Lazzarini explained.
Last month, Tel Aviv claimed 12 UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks launched by Hamas against Israel, which killed over 1,200 Israelis and sparked a war in Gaza that has claimed the lives of more than 26,000 Palestinians.
The grave accusation, revealed by Israel on the same day the UN’s top court ordered it to prevent genocide in Gaza, sparked fears of possible infiltration by Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the EU, into the Western-funded UN agency.
Lazzarini suggested, however, that Israel had yet to provide evidence to substantiate its accusations.
Over the weekend, the Israeli Defence Forces also alleged they had uncovered Hamas’ data and communications centre in a tunnel directly beneath UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters. Lazzarini has since said he had no knowledge of the tunnel.
Following discussions with representatives of the European Commission, Lazzarini said there was a “mutual commitment” to address the concerns that prompted the EU executive to launch a review into its funding to UNRWA.
Whilst the Commission assured its humanitarian assistance would continue “unabated” following the allegations, it suggested its €82 million donation in development aid due in late February would be conditional on UNRWA auditing its recruitment procedures, bolstering its internal oversight mechanisms and vetting its 30,000-strong workforce.
Lazzarini said that his conversations with Commissioners on the issue had been “very constructive.”
Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, strongly suggested that EU cash would flow as anticipated given that UNRWA had launched the investigation the bloc had called for.
“The Commission has never asked for the investigation to finish, but to be launched,” Borrell said. “We are clever enough to understand that this can not be finished in 20 days.”
The independent review into UNRWA is being led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna. An interim report is expected in late March.
Defunding UNRWA ‘will affect Europeans’
Several nations have paused payments to UNRWA in the wake of the scandal. These include Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, in a devastating blow to the donor-reliant agency.
Lazzarini said that if governments maintain their decisions, it would strip UNRWA of $450 million (€418 million) this year alone. He said he was engaged with “a number of countries” to assess their expectations to allow the release of these funds.
Without any freeze in funding, the agency’s cash flow would have been secured until July, Lazzarini noted, but the announced suspensions meant it would be negative as of March.
A defiant Borrell said such decisions amounted to “collective punishment” rather than “individual accountability.”
“To discontinue the support of UNRWA would mean the interruption of vital services to millions of people in need, and a greater humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, which has to be avoided,” Borrell told reporters.
“Not only because it is a humanitarian imperative. But also because it would have dangerous repercussions on regional stability and would affect Europeans too.”
While seven member states have paused funding, other countries, like Spain, Belgium and Ireland, have firmly backed the agency’s role in the Palestinian Territories and the broader region, with some even calling on the Commission to boost its financial aid.
In his remarks on Monday, Borrell slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for attempts to “cancel” the work of UNRWA. He assured that only when statehood has been given to Palestinians that the agency’s work can be rightfully discontinued, saying that its existence 75 years after it was founded was in itself “deplorable.”
On Sunday, a committee in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, approved a draft bill to end the operations of UNRWA in Jerusalem, and will be voted on preliminary on Wednesday.
Rafah situation ‘extraordinarily challenging’
Lazzarini also decried the situation in Gaza’s southern town of Rafah, which Israel claims is Hamas’ last stronghold and where overnight the Israeli forces launched a military offensive. About 1.4 million Palestinians are estimated to be in the area after fleeing from other parts of Gaza.
Israel has ordered them to evacuate, but Borrell explained incredulity at the demand given that they cannot flee south past the Egyptian border.
“They are going to evacuate where? To the moon? Where are they going to evacuate these people?” he questioned.
Lazzarini explained that UN agencies are unable to operate with the minimum required protection because the local police force “might not be functional anymore, since many of them have been killed” and many officers are reluctant to assist because aid convoys had been targeted by “hundreds of young people.”
“The coming days will tell us if yes or not, we will be able to continue to operate in an extraordinary, extraordinary, challenging environment,” he explained