Israel Palestine Conflict

Israel blocks UNRWA chief from entering Gaza, UNRWA and Egypt say

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Israeli authorities denied permission for the head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) to enter the Gaza Strip on Monday, UNRWA and the Egyptian foreign minister said, calling it an unprecedented move.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini, speaking alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at a Cairo news conference, said he had intended to go to Rafah on Monday “but I have been informed an hour ago that my entry into Rafah is declined.”

Shoukry told Lazzarini: “You were declined by the Israeli government, refused the entry which is an unprecedented move for (a) representative at this high position.”

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UNRWA, founded in 1949, provides aid and essential services to Palestinian refugees and is the largest such provider in Gaza.

The move to deny Lazzarini permission to enter the territory comes as Palestinians in Gaza face a deepening humanitarian crisis, with a UN-backed report saying on Monday that famine is expected between now and May in the north of Gaza.

“We are engaged in a race against the clock to try to reverse the impact of the spreading hunger and the looming famine in the Gaza Strip,” Lazzarini said, describing hunger in the Gaza Strip as “man-made.”

The crisis could be resolved and reversed through proper political will and Gaza could be “flooded” with food through the land crossings, he added.

Lazzarini has visited the Gaza Strip four times since the Gaza war began on Oct. 7, and on numerous occasions prior to that, UNRWA communications director Juliette Touma told Reuters.

“The Israeli authorities denied entry of the UNRWA CG (Commissioner General) to Gaza today,” she said.

It marked the first time Lazzarini had been denied entry since he began in the post, to which he was appointed in 2020.

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

UNRWA is at the center of a crisis over Israeli allegations made in January that 12 of its 13,000 staff in Gaza took part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The Israeli accusations led 16 countries including the United States to pause $450 million in UNRWA funding, throwing its 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 countries which have subsequently resumed funding, its foreign minister saying last week that Australia had consulted with UNRWA and other donors and was satisfied the aid agency was not a terrorist organization.

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

With the war between Israel and Hamas now in its sixth month, the UN has warned that at least 576,000 people in Gaza – one quarter of the population – are on the brink of famine and global pressure has been growing on Israel to allow more access for aid.

Lazzarini also said that more than 150 of UNRWA’s facilities have been hit, damaged or completely destroyed during the offensive launched by Israel in response to the Oct. 7 attacks.

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

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