Press Conference at UN Geneva by UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini: Transcript of Introductory Remarks.

30 April 2024
Press Conference at UN Geneva by UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini: Transcript of Introductory Remarks.

30 April 2024


I had a longer Member State briefing than expected this morning. What I suggest to do now is to share one or two latest developments on the ground, but also to share with you some of the messages I have shared with the Member States and also to comment on the review, Catherine Colonna’s report, and maybe also a little update on the OIOS report.

When it comes to the situation on the ground, I mean, basically, our colleagues are telling us that there is an extraordinarily deep anxiety prevailing right now in Gaza because the question everybody asks is, “Yes or no, would there be a military offensive?” And the likelihood of a military offensive all depends on whether or not a ceasefire deal will be reached this week. Just to let you know that people have not yet been asked to evacuate from Rafah. But there is a sense that if there is no deal this week, this can happen at any time.

My colleagues on the ground are also describing, basically, a constant state of trauma among the people. And, basically, they came with a new acronym. We are not talking anymore about PTSD, but we are talking more about CTSD, which would mean Constant Traumatic Stress Disorder, prevailing in the Gaza Strip.

And obviously this is not too surprising. This morning, I commented also on the latest development in the north, where we are engaged in a race against the clock, to reverse. In fact, there's spreading hunger and a looming famine, especially in the northern part. The good news is that my colleagues have reported that there is more food available on the market. So, this increases availability. But it still does not mean that the food is accessible – just because there is absolutely no cash circulating in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. We believe that much more needs to be done. It is true that there have been more supplies entering during the month of April, but this is still far from enough to reverse the negative trend we have seen.

I have also mentioned this morning when I met the Member States, the issue about the blame game – you might have heard – between the Israeli Authorities, mainly COGAT, and the United Nations. On one hand, the Israelis are saying “What? We are providing all the necessary food. The problem is on the side of the United Nations.” Let me just give you a few facts regarding this. First, this is not true. This is not our reading. Look at, starting with UNRWA, whenever we ask for a convoy going from the south side to the north, our convoys are systematically denied. So, we still have no access. Whenever permission is given to deliver anywhere else in the Strip, the process is always complicated and very cumbersome.

When it comes to entering Gaza. We have this system of offloading, downloading, offloading, downloading the trucks, which makes things extraordinarily difficult. Also, we have the operating hours of the crossing, which vary from one day to another one, with a limited number of hours where we can operate. And most of the time, many times a week, we have also the crossing of being closed, because they are just dumping released detainees or sometimes dumping bodies that have been taken to Israel and back to the Gaza Strip.

Now, talking about the detainees, I have also briefed the Member States about the report we issued about a week ago. It was the first time that, in fact, UNRWA has released such a report. In my meeting this morning, I have reminded them that, of course, hostages are still in captivity with Hamas and that both the Secretary-General and myself, and other UN officials, keep asking for the unconditional and immediate release of the hostages.

But I have also shared to this morning our deep concern regarding the Gazans detained by Israeli Security Forces. The report you have seen recently has been based on a number of testimonies collected by the Agency. Why by the Agency? Because we are at the crossing. We are at Kerem Shalom because we are manning the main logistical hub at the entry of Gaza. And these people basically have been released at this place. And according to the testimonies that we have collected, people have told us that they are routinely rounded up.

When they were arrested, they were routinely rounded up, stripped to their underwear, and loaded into trucks, blindfolded, and bound. Most of the time, once arrested these detainees remain incommunicado and they are subjected to shocking inhumane treatment. Among inhumane treatment they have described to us waterboarding, severe beatings, attacks by dogs, being forced to hold a stress position for hours, sometimes 12 hours, 24 hours, and being forced to wear diapers instead of accessing the toilet. And among the detainees who have been released, we had also a number of UNRWA staff, and they have also reported to us that while under interrogation they were asked a lot of questions about their work UNRWA. And they basically were being pressured to state that the Agency is politically affiliated in the Gaza Strip.

This morning, I have also highlighted the fact that, as you know, the Agency is under a lot of strain now called for the agency to be dismantled. But the Agency has also been targeted over the last six or seven months in Gaza – our staff, but also our premises, as well as our operations.

I just reminded them that since the beginning of the war, we have 182 staff members now who have been killed, and more than 160 premises which have been damaged or totally destroyed. And most of these premises were sheltering displaced people – and more than 400 people have been killed in these premises. We have also seen that whenever we vacated premises, mainly in the north of the Gaza Strip, they have then been used for military purposes.

We have also heard about the allegations regarding tunnels underneath some of our premises. And basically, I was calling on Member States to make sure that, at the end of the war, once we have a ceasefire, that that we put in place an independent investigation to look into this blatant disregard of the United Nations in order to avoid that this becomes also in the future, the new, standard.

I also briefed this morning about where we stand on the OIOS report. But in fact, you were briefed by Stephane Dujarric on Friday. Just to reiterate what he has said, we started with 12 allegations conveyed orally to me that I submitted to OIOS. Later on, OIOS received seven additional allegations – five in March and two in April. Out of the 19, one person has been completely cleared and is now reinstated. And four people out of the 19, the investigation is now on hold because there is no further or additional information available for the time being.

When it comes to the Catherine Colonna report, you had access already a week ago. You have seen that she has stressed the fact that the Agency has an important and robust system and mechanism to deal with neutrality breaches. That is, in fact, above average in the region. But obviously we can do more and there are a number of recommendations – 50 – that the Secretary-General and myself, committed now to implement. You have seen the eight categories that she has looked into.

We have published last week, already, a four-pager informing the Member States about our intent and how we will follow up on these recommendations. And I hope that by mid-May, we will have a first preliminary action plan to be shared. Now we will have four categories of recommendations. One, the recommendation for which the agency has already taken steps and we have just to wait to align them with the recommendations of the report. We have additional recommendations, which we consider a quick fix and can be implemented. Then we have recommendations which require additional resources within the organization. And, lastly, we have recommendations where we require the support of Member States or a host country. We committed to report back on a regular basis, on where we stand with this recommendation.

Maybe just a comment on the funding situation. In January, you remember that, once the allegations have been made public, up to 16 countries suspended their contribution to the Agency. The good news is that as of today, most of the donor countries have resumed their contribution to the Agency. We just have a handful of countries that will still need to take a decision. We know that the main contributor, being the US, has indicated that they will not be able to support the agency before March 2025. But, meanwhile, in all Member State briefings, they are recommending other countries to support UNRWA, and we still wait, otherwise, the decision of other countries, including the one we are in just now [Switzerland].

The good news also on the funding is that we have new donors, or countries who, before, never contributed to the Agency. And I want to also to flag the success in private fundraising. In six months, the Agency has mobilized more than US$ 115 million in private fundraising, which is an indication also of the extraordinary grassroots solidarity expressed towards Palestinians and also to the Agency.

Let me just conclude with one or two comments.

The first one is that I was at the Security Council ten days ago and, basically, reminded the Member State that all the calls for the Agency to be dismantled, not only in Gaza, but also in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank have nothing to do with neutrality. Neutrality issues can be addressed. But the objective behind it is clearly to strip the Palestinians of their refugee status. And, basically, we keep hearing that UNRWA is part of the problem because it perpetuates refugee status. It's as if you say that a humanitarian response in a conflict perpetuates the conflict. What perpetuated the conflict is the absence of a political solution.

So, I told Member States that, more than ever, the lasting temporary Agency that we have been over the last 75 years, if really today there is a genuine commitment to reactivate and bring back the two-state solution on the table, the agency can retrieve its temporary nature by supporting the transition leading to the two-state solution. The transition leading to a day after.




Background Information: 

UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The United Nations General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949 with a mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to registered Palestine refugees in the Agency’s area of operations pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.

UNRWA operates in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, The Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. 

Tens of thousands of Palestine refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods due to the 1948 conflict continue to be displaced and in need of support, nearly 75 years on.

UNRWA helps Palestine Refugees achieve their full potential in human development through quality services it provides in education, health care, relief and social services, protection, camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency assistance. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions.

Your support is crucial to help us provide emergency aid 
to displaced families in Gaza

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