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UN refugee agency in Gaza can't easily be replaced: chief

The Gaza City headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) is war-damaged and empty but director Philippe Lazzarini says the agency cannot easily be replaced
— Jerusalem (AFP)

It is unrealistic to think the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, can easily be replaced, its head said on Thursday in the face of calls for its abolition.

"It is a little bit short-sighted to believe that UNRWA can just technically hand over all its activities to other UN agencies or NGOs," Philippe Lazzarini told journalists at the agency's headquarters in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

"It's an agency (that's) quite unique because we are... primarily providing government-like services to one of the most destitute communities in the region," he said.

Pointing to education, he said "there is no one except a functioning and administrative state which can provide a direct education to all these grades, at scale".

In Gaza, he added, "we have the biggest footprint, we are providing the entire operation platform of the rest of the humanitarian community".

If UNRWA left Gaza, he said, "it would weaken our collective ability to respond to unprecedented and acute humanitarian needs."

The UN agency, created in 1949, employs around 30,000 people in the occupied Palestinian territories -- including 13,000 in Gaza -- as well as neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

It has come under heavy criticism after Israel accused 12 of its employees of being implicated in the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel.

Multiple countries have suspended their aid, although the UN has said that Israel has not provided it with any evidence.

The UN has launched both an internal and an independent investigation into the claims.

The accusations were "feeding and fuelling anxiety among our staff" and were causing settlers and demonstrators in the occupied West Bank to target UNRWA personnel, Lazzarini said.

He said that calls for UNRWA to be dismantled were "a way to address the issue of refugee status without having to go through a political process," and would be seen by Palestinians as a "betrayal by the international community".

Lazzarini insisted that UNRWA was still a temporary organisation and its aim "remains to hand over all services to a functioning state".

He is due to speak at the UN General Assembly on Monday.