The head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has called for “clear and unequivocal guarantees” over the safety and security of staff working to restore critical services in Gaza, following last month’s conflict between Israel and militant group Hamas, which controls the occupied enclave.
Phillipe Lazzarini issued a strongly-worded statement on Thursday, expressing serious concern at the “magnitude of attacks directed against the senior management of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip over the past week, including the assembly of a very large protest in front of the UNRWA Field Office”, last Monday.
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The Commissioner-General noted with concern that some “slogans, statements and parodies circulated in the last two days in particular” directly targeting the Director and Senior Deputy Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, Matthias Schmale and David de Bold, “are unacceptable and tantamount to threats to the safety and security of UNRWA staff members.”
According to multiple news reports, the protests began following remarks on an Israeli television news channel on 22 May, in which Mr. Schmale reportedly said that he did not dispute the assertion from the Israeli military that airstrikes had been “precise”. Mr. Schmale reportedly apologised and explained that he had been commenting on the ferocity of the Israeli strikes, and noted the “unacceptable and unbearable loss of life on the civilian side.”
Consultations in Jerusalem
Following news reports that the two senior officials in Gaza had been declared persona non grata on Thursday by “Palestinian factions”, Mr. Lazzarini emphasized that UNRWA has not been formally notified to that effect. “UNRWA senior staff continue to lead the Gaza field office”, he added.
The Commissioner-General said he had called the Director and Senior Deputy Director in Gaza to the Agency’s Headquarters in East Jerusalem for “consultations over the situation and steps to take to enable the continuation of all UNRWA services.”
He said UNRWA continued to offer the two men “full support” and thanked “every single staff member of the Gaza Field Office for their commitment and hard work during and after the 11days hostilities.”
Mr. Lazzarini noted that over 70,000 displaced people who found refuge in UNRWA schools were kept safe from the Israeli attacks, and that it took “an immense team spirit to remain cohesive against such huge adversity”, saluting the courage and commitment of all staff at all levels, “many of whom lost loved ones and still continued to work. I also reiterate my deep condolences go to those who lost loved ones.”
“UNRWA has unequivocally condemned the killing and wounding of all civilians, including Palestine refugees, and has consistently called on all parties to ensure the protection of civilians during the recent hostilities in Gaza and the recent escalation of violence in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem”, he added.
No choice but to leave
He said the agency “strongly protested and contested the position conveyed by the De Facto authorities in Gaza that they could no longer guarantee the safety and security of our staff. Regrettably, such a position left the Agency with no other choice than to ask the staff to leave the Gaza Strip as their security is of paramount priority to UNRWA.”
In the aftermath of a devastating conflict and the urgent need to help Palestine refugees in Gaza feel safe, Mr. Lazzarini said that UNRWA “must be able to deploy all its staff and efforts without any fear for their safety and security.”
UNRWA senior management, health, education, camp improvement and social workers are fully mobilized to respond to the immense needs of 1.4 million Palestine refugees as they arise, he added, noting it was “not possible for UNRWA to deploy staff across Gaza without explicit safety and security guarantees that they will all be protected.”
Focus on relief for Gazans
The UNRWA chief said the agency would now focus on rehabilitating homes that have been destroyed, ensuring adequate cash and food assistance to those hit hardest by the conflict, and resume all its critical services, including a COVID vaccination programme.
“This is a time for a strong UNRWA, and any attempts to tarnish the reputation of the agency or its staff can only undermine its ability to deliver critical services to a population whose needs are immense, and only growing, after the recent hostilities.”