Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, briefs reporters at U.N. headquarters on March 4, 2024. Photo courtesy Mark Garten/U.N. photo.



The head of UNRWA, the scandal-plagued, Palestinian-only refugee aid agency, told the U.N. General Assembly that his agency is “at a breaking point” after the United States and others suspended funding, pending an investigation of UNRWA staff’s ties to Hamas.

The Israeli envoy to the global body told UNRWA good riddance.

“After all that has been exposed about UNRWA, it’s very clear,” Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told the General Assembly on Monday, March 4, “UNRWA will never again operate in Gaza as it has prior to Oct. 7. Its role in Gaza is finished and it must be replaced immediately. UNRWA must be defunded and dismantled.”

Sees Israel As Enemy

Phillipe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, said at the urgent General Assembly session that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “openly” stated “that UNRWA will not be a part of post-war Gaza.”

“Part of this campaign involves inundating donors with misinformation designed to foster distrust and tarnish the reputation of the agency,” Lazzarini said. He added that his agency faces a “deliberate and concerted campaign” to undermine its operations.

‘Protecting’ UNRWA

Lazzarini insisted that his agency cannot survive without a cash injection, after major donor countries suspended aid in the wake of Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA employees participated directly in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel.

Israel’s Evidence

Israel has further alleged that there are more extensive ties between UNRWA’s Gaza staff members, 13,000 of whom are from the Strip itself, and terror groups in the enclave.

The Jewish state released video footage of an UNRWA worker helping kidnap the body of an Israeli on Oct. 7 and audio of two phone calls that UNRWA teachers made that detail and celebrate their participation in the killing and hostage-taking spree.

Lazzarini told the General Assembly that Israel has not turned direct evidence over to him. He said he fired the 12 accused staffers “to protect” UNRWA.   Lazzarini told reporters that he has “no regrets” about dismissing the workers, even as some $450 million in aid was suspended in light of the seriousness of the accusations. Lazzarini had drawn criticism from Israel critics that he drew attention to the situation by firing the dozen or so employees based on what those critics say is little evidence.

UNRWA and other U.N. officials first stated the agency would run out of money at the end of February. They have since pushed that deadline back twice, although the organization’s financial situation does not appear to have improved.

Lazzarini stated at the press conference that “many” of the 16 countries that suspended aid “would like to come back.”  “Most of the time, the decision is based not on foreign policy considerations, but it’s based more on optics or domestic opinion in the various countries,” he said, allowing that “supporting UNRWA can be divisive.”

Several investigations are underway probing the charges that Israel leveled against UNRWA. There is an ongoing, internal U.N. investigation and a review, for which Lazzarini called, of UNRWA’s neutrality and risk management.

Agency’s Missteps

Critics say the latter aims to whitewash the agency’s missteps and extensive criticism of Israel, noting that one of the three Scandinavian research institutes selected by the United Nations and UNRWA to help shape the review has previously dismissed such charges against UNRWA, and the other two have criticized Israel, including since Oct. 7.

UNRWA has been accused repeatedly of kowtowing to Hamas and even collaborating with the terror group, which stores weapons in tunnels it built under U.N. facilities. In recent months, the Israeli military has documented an advanced Hamas data center underneath UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City.

The U.N. agency has also drawn criticism for its unique mandate, which confers refugee status upon the descendants of those displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars in perpetuity and sustains for them the so-called Palestinian “right of return,” which would eliminate the Jewish majority in Israel.

Still Slamming Israel

Despite its purported peril, UNRWA managed to compile a report—first detailed by The New York Times—on alleged Israeli abuses of Gazan prisoners after Oct. 7, Lazzarini told reporters.

UNRWA interviewed some 100 former detainees after they crossed back into Gaza following their releases, Lazzarini said. The report has not been made public. Lazzarini said it “has been shared with the relevant human rights entities dealing with detention.”


JNS asked Lazzarini how UNRWA had the capacity to conduct such an extensive investigation amid a war, during which UNRWA officials have repeatedly asserted that the agency has no capacity to investigate Hamas’s construction of tunnels under UNRWA facilities and other usages of its property by terror groups.

Lazzarini told JNS that his organization deals primarily with education and health care, seeming to imply that the report of alleged Israeli abuses falls under the latter category.

“I do not have the expertise to look at what is underneath,” Lazzarini said of the tunnels beneath UNRWA facilities. “Not only do I not have the expertise, I do not have the mandate. And if it is a peace and security issue, make sure such a mandate is given to those who can inspect underneath.”

“We need to have a board of inquiry, a proper investigation because it’s not OK that the U.N., which belongs to the member states, be blatantly disregarded,” Lazzarini added. “We need to know what happened.”

Fourteen issues UNRWA’s chief must address before Congress

Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, has just been asked to appear on the record and in person before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Here is a list of policy issues Lazzarini will have to address before Congress:

  1. UNRWA textbooks violate U.N. principles of peaceful reconciliation. For example, the agency has reintroduced a new textbook that lionizes terrorist Dalal Mughrabi. In 1978, Mughrabi’s terror squad commandeered a bus and murdered 38 passengers, including 13 children. The textbook presents her as a role model for UNRWA pupils. She is depicted in full terrorist garb. The lesson plan portrays her life story as suited for adulation and emulation.
  2. In Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and Gaza, UNRWA makes exclusive use of Palestinian Authority textbooks. Like all U.N. agencies, UNRWA is supposed to run schools based on the U.N. slogan “Peace Begins Here.” P.A. schools, however, promote the ideology of the Palestine Liberation Organization: Conquest of “Palestine” by force of arms. Lazzarini could immediately cancel the UNRWA-P.A. contract.
  3. UNRWAschools are adorned with posters and murals of “martyrs” who died while murdering Jews. Lazzarini could order the removal of all such images from UNRWA facilities.
  4. El Kutla youth clubs in UNRWA schools inculcate pupils with the mantra of the armed struggle from a young age. Lazzarini can order these clubs to end violent incitement.
  5. Military parades are frequently held on UNRWA premises. Lazzarini can end this practice immediately.
  6. Hamas members lead UNRWA’s teachers and workers unions. Lazzarini can stipulate that any agency employee who runs on a “Hamas ticket” must be dropped from the payroll. After all, even the U.N. defines Hamas as a terrorist organization.
  7. “Nakba Day” events are held at UNRWA facilities each year on May 15, the day the PLO mourns the defeat of the Arab armies that invaded Israel in 1948. These rallies call for violence. Lazzarini can issue a directive banning any incitement to violence at such events.
  8. Popular Gazan singer Mohammad Assaf, who claims to be an “UNRWA Youth Ambassador,” routinely incites crowds to violence. Lazzarini can issue a policy statement banning Assaf from UNRWA premises.
  9. Memorial events for Arabs killed while murdering Jews occur regularly in UNRWA schools. Lazzarini can cancel them.
  10. Lazzarini can ensure fiscal transparency. UNRWA receives $1.6 billion in annual donations from 67 nations and 32 NGOs, mostly in cash. Lazzarini must ensure that this money is used for humanitarian needs, not stolen by terror groups. He must also put an end to all cash donations, which make transparency almost impossible.
  11. Using the diplomatic pouches of donor nations, UNRWA exports textbooks promoting the “right of return” of Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants, along with the replacement of Israel with an Arab supremacist “Palestine.” Lazzarini can end this practice immediately.
  12. UNRWA has never revealed its financial practices, including how it spends its budget. Lazzarini can immediately release an accounting of expenditures to the public.
  13. UNRWA distributes world and regional maps that erase Israel and replace the names of all Israeli cities with Arabic names. Should Israel, a U.N. member in good standing, not appear on a map issued by a U.N. agency? Lazzarini can end this practice of cartographic ethnic cleansing immediately.
  14. Over the past 25 years, thousands of UNRWA students aged 9-16 have participated in summer camps that feature arms training with live weapons. With summer approaching in a few months, Lazzarini can act to stop this training of child soldiers that violates U.N. resolutions protecting the health and well-being of children.