UNRWA chief urges pushback against efforts to disband Palestinian agency

FILE PHOTO: UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a press conference in Beirut

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) -The head of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) on Monday called on partners to fight back against efforts by Israel to have the organisation disbanded as it provides humanitarian assistance to Gaza and across the region.

"Israel has long been critical of the agency's mandate. But it now seeks to end UNRWA's operations, dismissing the agency's status as a United Nations entity supported by an overwhelming majority of member states," UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said at a meeting of the agency's advisory commission in Geneva.

"If we do not push back, other U.N. entities and international organisations will be next, further undermining our multilateral system."

Lazzarini said the agency was being subjected to a "concerted effort" to dismantle it, including through legislative initiatives threatening to evict the agency from its compound and labelling UNRWA as a terrorist organisation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for years called for UNRWA to be dismantled, accusing it of anti-Israeli incitement. Last month, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed the preliminary reading of a bill aimed at designating UNRWA as a terrorist organisation.

The Israeli diplomatic mission in Geneva dismissed Lazzarini's statement on Monday.

"Letting other U.N. entities and international organisations be used or controlled by terrorist organisations to the extent Hamas embedded itself in UNRWA will further undermine our multilateral system," it said in a statement. "This is the real threat to our ruled-based international order."

Lazzarini also said the agency, which has provided essential aid to Gazans throughout Israel's eight-month offensive, was "staggering under the weight of relentless attacks".

"In Gaza, the agency has paid a terrible price: 193 UNRWA personnel have been killed," he said.

"More than 180 installations have been damaged or destroyed, killing at least 500 people seeking United Nations protection...Our premises have been used for military purposes by Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups."

Several countries halted their funding to UNRWA following accusations by Israel that some of the agency's staff were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that triggered the Gaza war. Most donors have since resumed their funding.

Lazzarini said that UNRWA still lacked the necessary resources to fulfil its mandate.

"The agency's ability to operate beyond August will depend on member states disbursing planned funds and providing new contributions to the core budget," he said.

Established in 1949 following the first Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA provides services including schooling, primary healthcare and humanitarian aid in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Friederike Heine and Sharon Singleton)