UNRWA Chief Describes Gaza as a 'Living Hell'

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini labels Gaza's humanitarian crisis as a man-made catastrophe, urging global intervention before it's too late.

Published June 25, 2024 - 00:06am

5 minutes read
Palestinian Territory, Occupied

Image recovered from yenisafak.com

Gaza has been decimated and become a living hell for more than 2 million people, according to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In a recent address to the agency's Advisory Commission in Geneva, Lazzarini depicted a dire scenario where catastrophic levels of hunger plague the region, attributing this crisis largely to human actions.

Lazzarini noted that children are dying of malnutrition and dehydration while vital food and clean water remain stuck in trucks due to rampant looting and smuggling, which impede the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid. He highlighted that the breakdown of civil order has exacerbated the situation, making it even harder to deliver the aid to those who need it most. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since October 7, with widespread destruction spreading fear and unrest across the region.

The UNRWA itself has not been unscathed; 193 of its personnel have been killed since October, and its operational space in the West Bank has been severely restricted by Israeli security forces. According to Lazzarini, arbitrary measures imposed by Israel have not only hindered the movement of staff but also escalated attacks on UNRWA facilities. The UN agency has become an inadvertent participant in the conflict, with its buildings used for military purposes by Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza stands as a microcosm of a larger, broader regional issue. As the first in-person meeting of the Advisory Commission since the war in Gaza commenced, members from the United States, Egypt, the European Union, Canada, Jordan, and others convened to tackle what Lazzarini described as one of the greatest Palestinian tragedies since the Nakba. Highlighting the fragility of the region, he stressed that millions of Palestine refugees across the occupied Palestinian territory, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are grappling with an uncertain and precarious future.

In his speech, Lazzarini argued that the systemic attacks on UNRWA are part of a concerted effort to dismantle the agency and change the established political parameters for peace in the occupied Palestinian territory. Legislative proposals have been put forth that aim to undermine UNRWA's operations by labeling the agency as a terrorist organization and threatening eviction from its compounds. These measures seek to destabilize the UNRWA and question its legitimacy as a UN entity, supported by a majority of UN member states. Lazzarini warned that if UNRWA's operations are further disrupted, other international organizations will eventually face similar detriments, thereby compromising the multilateral system's efficacy in managing humanitarian crises.

The crisis has had a profound impact on the civilians of Gaza. Many of them live in poverty, often confined to refugee camps with limited rights and opportunities. Lazzarini emphasized the need for a political solution, stating that the UNRWA exists mainly because a viable state providing essential services does not. Until such a solution is found, the burden falls upon organizations like the UNRWA to provide critical services such as healthcare and education. Before the war, UNRWA supplied around 70-80% of primary healthcare services in Gaza. However, the ongoing conflict continues to erode its ability to support this beleaguered population.

With schools closed and healthcare services downscaled, children in Gaza face a bleak future marked by trauma and deprivation. More than 600,000 children are currently out of school, exposing them to risks such as violence, child labor, and recruitment by armed groups. Lazzarini underscored that without immediate intervention to resume education, an entire generation will be condemned to continued poverty and conflict, thereby perpetuating the cycle of hardship faced by Palestinian refugees.

The crisis has also brought significant financial challenges for the UNRWA. Over a decade of chronic underfunding and severe austerity measures have greatly eroded the quality of services offered by the agency. Following allegations that some UNRWA personnel were involved in hostile activities, several countries including top donor entities momentarily withheld funding, exacerbating the budget shortfall. Despite the reinstatement of funds by several countries, the agency continues to struggle with insufficient resources to meet the overwhelming needs in its operational areas.

Lazzarini appealed to the international community to safeguard UNRWA's critical role and scale up service delivery. He called for stronger partnerships with stakeholders such as UNICEF, UNESCO, and the Palestinian Authority to implement systematic plans for the region, particularly focusing on mental health support, basic education in informal settings, and formal education in rebuilt schools.

In closing, he reiterated that the survival of UNRWA is pivotal for a political transition and emphasized the need for robust, predictable funding from member states. Lazzarini urged the Advisory Commission members to recognize and confront the existential crisis gripping the UNRWA and the region, stressing that maintaining the status quo will only result in the collapse of humanitarian responses in Gaza and raise the stakes for millions of vulnerable children, women, and men.


How would you rate this article?

What to read next...