The most recent outbreak of violence in Gaza showed that there is no alternative to a fair solution that guarantees basic human rights for Palestinians, including access to proper jobs for a better future, the head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) said this week.
In one of his first interviews since the end of an 11-day bombardment, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini called on the international community to pursue a “genuine” political path to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict so that the continuous cycle of fighting every few years does not continue.
But the UN envoy also called upon the international community to shoulder its responsibility and help support UNRWA, which looks to help Palestinian refugees live as close to a “normal” life as possible.
The path towards a normal life for these refugees was dealt a severe blow during the most recent round of violence and this was evident during Lazarrini’s trip to Gaza over the weekend.
On the ground
“Should we sleep all together and in this case we will all die together, or should we be scattered in [different] apartments so if a bomb or missile hits, someone might survive?” one family told Lazzarini during his visit to Gaza, as they recounted their fears during the Israeli airstrikes.
Once again, Gaza was reduced to rubble in less than two weeks after fighting broke out between Israel and the Hamas militant group.
Both sides declared victory, while the families of over 200 civilians mourned the loss of loved ones.
“You can also feel that … people are becoming more and more affected from one round of violence to the next and that layer of resilience is eroding more and more,” Lazzarini told Al Arabiya English in a video interview from his Jerusalem office.
Lazzarini assumed his role as the UNRWA chief just over a year ago, but the agency has witnessed some of the most challenging times in recent years due to budget cuts, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the most recent round of violence.
But after this month’s fighting between, the refugee agency has proved once again why it is necessary, he said.
With over 80 percent of the population in Gaza being Palestinian refugees, “we need a strong UNRWA,” Lazzarini said.
The UN envoy criticized the “regular” attacks on UNRWA’s education system. Israel has routinely hit out at the UN refugee agency for what it claims to be teaching hateful ideology.
In an apparent reference to this criticism, Lazzarini said UNRWA’s education programs were one of the only remaining institutions providing human rights curriculum, promoting gender parity and other topics.
“This is the real antidote for the people to the tension and violence prevailing in the region, hence the need to have a healthy and predictable UNRWA,” he said.
Budget cuts and political messages
Part of the reason Lazzarini mentioned the word “predictable” was because of the Trump administration’s sudden funding cut to UNRWA.
As part of its pressure campaign on Palestinians to agree to the so-called Deal of the Century, engineered by former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the US halted its contributions to UNRWA.
This left the agency with a funding gap of more than $300 million.
Under the Biden administration, a portion of the aid has been restored. Washington announced the resumption of $150 million in assistance to UNRWA last month, and these funds have been released, Lazzarini confirmed.
Nevertheless, the funding is not back at the level it was before the Trump administration announced its cuts.
Pleading for increased aid and contributions, Lazzarini defended the work of UNRWA and the services it continues to provide to Palestinian refugees.
“None of these refugees want to be a refugee, and they’re refugees because there is no political settlement promoting lasting and fair peace,” the UNRWA chief said.
Planning for immediate aid, future reconstruction efforts Lazzarini reiterated UNRWA’s previous flash appeal for $38 million in aid to respond to the immediate needs of those impacted by the recent violence and to carry out essential emergency interventions in Gaza.
This includes helping the thousands of people seeking shelter at UNRWA schools, but the next step will be to find them temporary shelter until their places of residence are rebuilt or repaired.
Part of the urgency in vacating the UNRWA schools is due to Lazzarini and the agency’s intention of resuming classes for refugee children.
“It’s very important to help children to overcome the psychological trauma, and hence the need to open the schools,” he said.
The UN agency has just started an emergency assessment of what needs to be rehabilitated and reconstructed.
“But as you know, UNRWA will not look at the big-ticket infrastructure of the Gaza Strip. We will be looking more at the infrastructure of our premises, which have been damaged,” Lazzarini said.
Call to the Gulf
Asked what his message was to the Gulf nations, Lazzarini said: “Be part of this process to support the efforts of UNRWA and help people [Palestinians] in their desire to have a normal life.”
Elaborating, Lazzarini said this meant helping in efforts to ensure proper access to education, jobs and to “equal rights here in the region.”
“It’s time once and for all to collectively bring a solution and a future to the people in this region,” he added.
Saudi Arabia, for example, lambasted the Israeli aggressions and attacks on Palestinians throughout the 11-day conflict. “The Palestinian cause is central to our policy so that the Palestinians can regain their lands,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said during the UN General Assembly meeting called for after the United States blocked a Security Council statement on the violence three times.
UN diplomats have said that Palestinian refugees initially felt abandoned following the Abraham Accords, where multiple Arab states normalized ties with Israel. “But there is still an expectation [by the Palestinians] to be supported. And these two tracks are not contradictory with the decisions of realignment in the region,” one UNRWA diplomat told Al Arabiya English.
Despite all the work being done by UNRWA and donor countries, including the Gulf, Lazzarini said this needed to be complemented by a “genuine political trajectory, promoting peace, and equal human rights in the region.”