Gaza suffers near total breakdown of law and order, UNRWA chief says

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) -Chaos is taking hold in Gaza as smuggling bands form and add to the difficulties in delivering aid, the head of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency said on Tuesday.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said it had become "excruciating" to deliver aid and voiced concerns that such conditions would impact efforts to counter the high famine risk confirmed by a global hunger monitor's report on Tuesday.

"Basically, we are confronted nowadays with a near total breakdown of law and order," UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told reporters, blaming in part an increase in gangs who are attacking aid trucks in the hopes of finding smuggled cigarettes stashed among aid supplies. "It's becoming more and more complicated (to deliver aid)," he added.

Local police are refusing to escort aid convoys for fear of being killed, he added, while humanitarian truck drivers were regularly being threatened or assaulted.

Among the other challenges, he named a near-drought in gasoline supplies which brought the UNRWA vehicle fleet to a halt on Monday. Israel vets fuel shipments into Gaza and has long maintained that there is a risk they are diverted to Hamas.

"We need sustainable, meaningful, uninterrupted aid in the Gaza Strip if we want to reverse the hunger situation," Lazzarini said, adding that the operating environment is not conducive to doing so.

Israel, which launched its Gaza military operation after deadly Hamas attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, says it has expanded efforts to facilitate aid flows into Gaza and blames aid agencies for distribution problems inside the enclave.

Established in 1949 following the first Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA provides services including schooling, primary healthcare and humanitarian aid in Gaza and the region.

Earlier this year, 16 countries paused payments to the agency following Israel's claims that some UNRWA staff were linked to Palestinian armed groups.

Lazzarini said all but two of those countries, the United States and Britain, had since resumed financing after a review of the agency's neutrality showed Israel had yet to provide evidence for its accusations.

It now has enough funding to finance operations until the end of August, he added.

(Reporting by Emma FargeEditing by Miranda Murray and Peter Graff)