Photo: IFAD nominates new President -Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo on14 February 2017, Credit: IFAD - Photo: 2021

UNRWA Chief Presents a Heart-Rending Account of the Palestinians’ Plight

By Radwan Jakeem

NEW YORK (IDN) — The Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has informed the Security Council of the humanitarian plight of Palestine refugees as affected by the recent Israel-Hamas conflict.

In remarks to the Security Council on May 27, Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini focused on the loss of and long-term impact on civilian life, and described the situation as “hell on earth” for UNRWA’s Gaza staff, who risked their lives daily to go to work and provide services to Palestine refugees in dire need and danger:

“Following 11 days of airstrikes by the Israeli military forces and rocket attacks launched by Palestinian armed groups, over 250 people were killed in Gaza; 66 of them were children, of whom 19 went to UNRWA schools. In Israel, 12 people, including two children, were killed. All loss of innocent civilians’ lives is unacceptable. My deep condolences go to those who lost loved ones. Thousands more have been injured. These are not just statistics. They are civilians whose life and dreams have been taken away.”

He described how 70,000 people “sought refuge in our schools because living under a blockade left them with no other place to seek protection.”

He emphasized in heart-rending words the daily terror and trauma experienced by the refugees his agency serves: “I met parents who every night asked themselves whether to have all their children sleep near them or to spread them around the house. Should they all die together? Or should they try to save some by scattering them?”

Until there is an enduring political solution to the conflict, he described the need for sustained, predictable international funding so that UNRWA can ensure that the more than 5 million refugees it serves can live with a sense of normality and stability.

UNRWA issued an initial 30-day emergency appeal of $38 million on May 19. UNRWA is engaging in a longer-term humanitarian needs assessment to determine what additional resources may be required to help the refugee population cope and recover.

The US this week committed more than $360 million in assistance to Palestinians, including nearly $33 million for UNRWA. Funding will go toward emergency shelter, food, relief items, and health care, as well as mental health and psychosocial support for survivors.

Lazzarini also addressed concerns regarding a new wave of COVID-19 infection, the need for vaccines, and the serious protection situation of Palestine refugees in the West Bank, who have suffered “a major increase in Israeli security forces’ incursions, search and arrest operations, as well as settler violence. Of particular concern was the heavy use of live ammunition during demonstrations where Palestinian refugees were among the injured and killed.”

The Commissioner-General’s focus on the West Bank was echoed in a video message in front of the UN Human Rights Council by Gwyn Lewis, director of UNRWA operations in the West Bank. She said:

The Agency reiterates the vulnerability of the Sheikh Jarrah community in East Jerusalem, including the eight families facing imminent eviction. Israeli Security Forces have set up a checkpoint severely restricting Palestinian exit and entry to the neighbourhood. Practices that fuel perceptions of inequality and differential treatment are ingredients for a drastic escalation of tensions, which can lead to more losses and casualties on both sides.

“The United Nations has called upon the Government of Israel to halt these evictions since it violates international law and risks forced transfer. UNRWA appeals to the international community and Member States to pay attention to the situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the use of live ammunition, and discrimination and incitement, and take immediate action with the Government of Israel to prevent the Sheikh Jarrah and other pending evictions and protect the equal rights of Palestinians, including Palestine refugees.”

She concluded: For Palestine refugees and their families throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, the ceasefire is welcomed but it should not create a false sense that we have returned to normality.

Innovative political solutions are required to comprehensively address the root causes of the conflict, she added. While fully respecting the humanitarian nature of UNRWA’s mandate, the Agency strongly supports the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on all sides—and Member States—to take immediate measures to ensure respect for international law, including international human rights law, ease tensions and work to resolve the conflict. The time is now to take real and substantive action. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 May 2021]

Note: UNRWA Commissioner-General’s full remarks are available in English and Arabic

Photo: UNRWA Commissioner-General Lazzarini visits the site of an air strike, one of many buildings destroyed in this latest round of violence in Gaza. © 2021 UNRWA Photo by Mohammed Hinnawi

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