“People are anxious and in fear of a possible large-scale military operation,” Philippe Lazzarini said, after emerging from a briefing with Member States at UN Geneva. “If the assault takes place, the question is, ‘Where will the civilians go?’ There is absolutely no safe place in Rafah anymore and the fear is that the number of people killed and injured might again significantly increase.”
After more than four months of fighting, sparked by murderous Hamas-led attacks on 7 October in Israel that left some 1,200 people butchered and more than 250 taken hostage, more than 100,000 Gazans have been reported either killed, injured or are missing under the rubble by the local health authority, amid intense Israeli bombardment.
Sea of displacement
Mr. Lazzarini insisted that it was unfeasible to expect the more than one million displaced people crammed into Rafah governorate to move once again, so that Israeli forces can continue their sweep for Hamas militants.
“They are asked to move, the question is where to move,” he said, noting that in Rafah, every spare piece of land over a 20-kilometre stretch was occupied by hundreds of thousands of people living in makeshift plastic shelters.
Turning to the issue of the serious allegations that some UNRWA staff collaborated with Hamas, the agency chief noted that he had immediately sacked those involved and initiated an investigation. Mr. Lazzarini also called for the cooperation of the Israeli authorities.
The UNRWA Commissioner-General also noted that the UN Secretary-General’s review would begin tomorrow into allegations against the agency regarding its “use of social media, about tunnels, about political affiliations” and how proactive it has been in responding to them.
The process will likely take two months but it should be accompanied by an inquiry, including into the Israeli military’s claim that a tunnel and data centre located 20 metres beneath UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City was used by Hamas, Mr. Lazzarini said.
“We need to look at all the situations where UN premises have been blatantly disrespected. Since the beginning of the war more than 150 of our installations have been hit. We know that some installations have been completely destroyed, hundreds of people have been killed, thousands have been injured and all this needs to be investigated independently, together with the allegation of a tunnel.”
Earlier, Israel’s Permanent Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Meirav Eilon Shahar, noted that her Government wished “no harm” to civilians in Gaza and that it did intend to cooperate with the investigation into UNRWA, although it “remained at war with the terrorist organization Hamas”.
“Our fight is with Hamas, it is not with the Palestinian people,” said the Ambassador, who also insisted that “there are alternatives to UNRWA” – a claim rejected by Mr. Lazzarini who said that it would be “shortsighted” to close the agency at a time when senior UN humanitarians and NGOs were calling for aid to be stepped up to Gaza.
Future at risk
“We have half a million girls and boys deeply traumatised that we urgently need to bring back into an education system,” the UNWRA chief said. This would not be provided by “an emerging local administration”, he insisted, adding that “there is absolutely no other UN agency” or NGO with the experience in providing government-like services, including education to hundreds of thousands of children.
“If we want to give a chance to any future transition to succeed, we need also to make sure that the international community has the tools, and one of these tools is UNRWA.”