UNRWA: Stop Israel’s Violent Campaign Against Us

By Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

The war in Gaza has produced a blatant disregard for the mission of the United Nations, including outrageous attacks on the employees, facilities and operations of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

These attacks must stop and the world must act to hold the perpetrators accountable.

As I write this, our agency has verified that at least 192 UNRWA employees have been killed in Gaza. More than 170 UNRWA premises have been damaged or destroyed. UNRWA-run schools have been demolished; some 450 displaced people have been killed while sheltered inside UNRWA schools and other structures. Since Oct. 7, Israeli security forces have rounded up UNRWA personnel in Gaza, who have alleged torture and mistreatment while in detention in the Strip and in Israel.

UNRWA staff members are regularly harassed and humiliated at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. Agency installations are used by the Israel security forces, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for military purposes.

UNRWA is not the only U.N. agency that faces danger. In April, gunfire hit World Food Program and UNICEF vehicles, apparently inadvertently but despite coordination with the Israeli authorities.

The assault on UNRWA has spread to East Jerusalem, where a member of the Jerusalem municipality has helped incite protests against UNRWA. Demonstrations are becoming increasingly dangerous, with at least two arson attacks on our UNRWA compound, and a crowd including Israeli children gathered outside our premises singing “Let the U.N. burn.” At other times, demonstrators threw stones.

Israeli officials are not only threatening the work of our staff and mission, they are also delegitimizing UNRWA by effectively characterizing it as a terrorist organization that fosters extremism and labeling U.N. leaders as terrorists who collude with Hamas. By doing so, they are creating a dangerous precedent of routine targeting of U.N. staff and premises.

How can this be possible? Where is the international outrage? Its absence is a license to disregard the United Nations and opens the door to impunity and chaos. If we tolerate such attacks in the context of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, we cannot uphold humanitarian principles in other conflicts around the world. This assault on the United Nations will further diminish our tools for peace and defense against inhumanity around the world. It must not become the new norm.

While Israel has long been hostile to UNRWA, following the abhorrent attacks of Oct. 7 it unleashed a campaign to equate UNRWA with Hamas and depict the agency as promoting extremism. In a new dimension to this campaign, the Israeli government made serious allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the Hamas attack.

There is no question that individuals accused of criminal acts, including the deplorable assault on Israel, must be investigated. This is exactly what the United Nations is doing. Those individuals must be held accountable through criminal prosecution and, if found guilty, punished.

The Office of Internal Oversight Services, the top investigative body in the U.N. system, is overseeing this inquiry. It is looking into allegations against 19 out of 13,000 UNRWA staff members in Gaza. To date, one case was closed because there was no evidence. Four cases were suspended because the information was insufficient to proceed. Another 14 cases remain under investigation.

But we must distinguish the behavior of individuals from the agency’s mandate to serve Palestinian refugees. It is unjust and dishonest to attack UNRWA’s mission on the basis of these allegations.

Outside of these cases, there have been further allegations of collusion with Hamas, which I believe have rendered — in the eyes of some — U.N. humanitarian workers and assets to be legitimate targets. That’s a danger to U.N. workers everywhere. The world must act decisively against the illegitimate attacks on the United Nations, not only for Gaza and Palestinians but for all nations. The adoption last week by the U.N. Security Council of Resolution 2730 on the protection of humanitarian personnel is a welcome development.

The international community has ways to address the committing of international crimes, such as the International Criminal Court. However, the scale and scope of the attacks against U.N. personnel and premises in the occupied Palestinian territories in the last seven months merit the urgent establishment of a dedicated, independent investigative body, through a U.N. Security Council or General Assembly resolution, to ascertain the facts and identify those responsible for attacks on its agencies. Such an investigative body can ensure accountability and, crucially, help to reaffirm the inviolability of international law.

We must meaningfully defend U.N. institutions and the values they represent before the symbolic shredding of the charter establishing the United Nations. This can only be achieved through principled action by the nations of the world and a commitment by all to peace and justice.

By Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.