UNRWA Chief Says Israeli Pressure, Funding Freeze Threaten Agency

United Nations —  The head of the embattled U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees warned Thursday that it is at a “breaking point,” and its ability to assist millions of Palestinians is “seriously threatened.”

“It is with profound regret that I must now inform you that the Agency has reached breaking point, with Israel’s repeated calls to dismantle UNRWA and the freezing of funding by donors at a time of unprecedented humanitarian needs in Gaza,” Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini wrote in a letter to the president of the U.N. General Assembly.

Without new funding, he said UNRWA’s operations across the region will be severely compromised starting in March.

The General Assembly established the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, in 1949 to assist some 700,000 Palestinian refugees displaced in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that broke out after Israel became a state in May that year.

Today, it operates not just in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, but also in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where there are large Palestinian refugee communities. Nearly 6 million Palestinians are eligible for UNRWA services, which include education and health care.

UNRWA has faced severe financial problems before, but after Israel presented information to Lazzarini last month alleging that 12 UNRWA staffers were involved in the October 7 terror attacks inside Israel, the agency faced its biggest crisis yet.

The staffers were immediately fired, and an internal investigation was launched. But in the aftermath, 16 donors, including top contributor the United States, suspended funding totaling around $450 million.

A second, independent review of UNRWA’s working methods and neutrality was ordered by the United Nations. Former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna is heading it up and will present her group’s final report in April. She met with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday to discuss their work.

“We will specifically clarify the mechanisms, the process in place, the structures and see if they ensure the neutrality as they should to the best of the power within UNRWA, and we also will look at how they have been implemented, of course, in practice, not only they’re fit for purpose, but how they are implemented,” she told reporters.


Israeli officials have criticized UNRWA for years, alleging that Hamas uses its schools for terrorist activities and that they promote an anti-Israel curriculum. After the October 7 allegations, the rhetoric intensified.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a visiting group of U.N. ambassadors in Jerusalem on January 31, that UNRWA was “totally infiltrated with Hamas” and its “mission has to end.” 

Last week, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a post on social media platform X that, “UNRWA cannot be a part of Gaza’s landscape in the aftermath of Hamas.”

At the United Nations, Israel’s ambassador asserted on Tuesday, without offering any details or evidence, that 12% of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff members in Gaza are members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that at least 236 of them “are active terrorists in these organizations’ armed wings.”

“In Gaza, Hamas is the U.N. and the U.N. is Hamas,” Ambassador Gilad Erdan told a Security Council meeting, saying Hamas had a data center and tunnels under UNRWA headquarters in Gaza.

UNRWA’s Lazzarini said in his letter that his agency does not have “counterintelligence, police, or criminal justice capacities” and relies on Israel for this, even providing the government with its staff list.

He said Israel’s calls for UNRWA’s closure are not about the agency’s neutrality but are political.

“Instead, they are about changing the long-standing political parameters for peace in the occupied Palestinian territory set by the General Assembly and the Security Council,” he said. “They seek to eliminate UNRWA’s role in protecting the rights of Palestine Refugees and acting as a witness to their continuing plight.”

Palestinians want to preserve their “right of return” as a final status issue for negotiations with Israel over a two-state solution. If the refugee agency is eliminated, some fear it could have political implications.

Lazzarini appeared to link some of Israel’s campaign against UNRWA with the International Court of Justice’s decision on January 26 to issue provisional measures ordering Israel to take steps to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza.

“Since the ICJ ruling, there has been a concerted effort by some Israeli officials to deceptively conflate UNRWA with Hamas, to disrupt UNRWA’s operations, and to call for the dismantling of the Agency,” he said.

The commissioner general said that included Jerusalem’s deputy mayor taking steps to evict the agency from the headquarters it has occupied for 75 years in East Jerusalem and the tabling of a bill in the Israeli Knesset to exclude UNRWA from U.N. privileges and immunities. He said visas for international staff have been limited to only one to two months, and an Israeli bank blocked an UNRWA account.

U.N. chief Guterres has said UNRWA is critical and irreplaceable.

“There is no other organization that has a presence in Gaza that is capable of being able to respond to the needs,” he told reporters earlier this month.

Most aid going into Gaza is delivered by UNRWA.

Ambassador Vanessa Frazier of Malta was one of the diplomats who visited Israel last month. She said her government will not stop funding the agency.

“UNRWA is the backbone of the entire humanitarian system throughout Gaza,” she told reporters. “If UNRWA fails, they will not be able to just simply to take the funding from countries [to other agencies] and do deliveries.”

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