Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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UNRWA chief says Israel blocks him from Gaza


Israel denied the head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) entry to the Gaza Strip on Monday, UNRWA and Egypt said, calling it an unprecedented move at a time of massive need.

Philippe Lazzarini, whose organization has been in crisis since Israel accused 12 of its staff of taking part in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, said he meant to go to the Gaza city of Rafah but was informed: “my entry into Rafah is declined.”

Speaking with him at a Cairo news conference, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said: “You were declined by the Israeli government, refused the entry which is an unprecedented move for (a) representative at this high position.”

The Israeli prime minister’s office and foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

UNRWA is by far the largest relief body in Gaza, where the depth of the humanitarian crisis was underlined on Monday when a UN-backed report warned of imminent famine in the north.

“On the day new data is out on famine in #GAZA, the Israeli Authorities deny my entry to Gaza,” Lazzarini wrote on X, adding that his visit was intended to improve humanitarian operations.

“This man-made starvation under our watch is a stain on our collective humanity.”

Israel’s ground and air offensive has laid waste to the Gaza Strip over the last five months, killing more than 31,000 people, according to health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza.

The offensive was triggered when Hamas fighters stormed into Israel in an attack that killed 1,200 people and resulted in another 253 being taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

Funding crisis

Israel alleged in January that 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza took part in the Oct. 7 attack. The Israeli accusations led 16 countries including the United States to pause US$450 million in funding, throwing UNRWA operations into crisis.

UNRWA fired some staff members, saying it acted in order to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, and an independent internal UN investigation was launched.

Australia is one of several states which subsequently resumed funding. Its foreign minister said last week that Australia had consulted with UNRWA and other donors and was satisfied the agency was not a terrorist organization.

UNRWA has condemned the Oct. 7 attacks, saying the Israeli allegations against the agency – if true – are a betrayal of U.N. values and of the people UNRWA serves.

UNRWA communications director Juliette Touma told Reuters Lazzarini had visited the Gaza Strip four times during the war, and numerous occasions before that.

“We were ready to leave this morning on an Egyptian plane from Cairo to El Arish,” Touma said.

Lazzarini has previously warned of a campaign to end UNRWA operations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said UNRWA must be shut down.

In Cairo, the UNRWA head warned of a “race against the clock” to reverse thespread of hunger and avert famine. With political will, Gaza could be “flooded” with food via land crossings, he added.

He also said that more than 150 of UNRWA’s facilities in Gaza have been hit, damaged or completely destroyed.

“We also know that a number of staff that have been arrested have gone through very tough investigation, ill-treatment and humiliation,” Lazzarini said.

(Reporting by Sarah El Safty, Nayera Abdallah, Clauda Tanios, Tom Perry in Beirut, James Mackenzie and Emily Rose in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)

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