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Head of UN agency for Palestinians urges probe into staff killings

Philippe Lazzarini revealed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) had been able to partly offset a funding shortfall by raising $100 million from online donations since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out last October
— United Nations (United States) (AFP)

The director of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees hit back at Israel Tuesday, calling for a Security Council probe into the "blatant disregard" for UN operations in Gaza after some 180 staffers were killed.

Philippe Lazzarini also revealed that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) had been able to partly offset a funding shortfall by raising $100 million from online donations since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out in October.

His comments came a day after the release of an independent review that said Israel had not yet provided evidence supporting its claim that hundreds of UNRWA staff were members of terrorist groups. The review did, however, identify "neutrality-related issues" within the agency, for example in employees' social media posts.

While accepting the findings of the review, Lazzarini told reporters that attacks on UNRWA's neutrality "are primarily motivated by the objective to strip the Palestinians from the refugee status -- and this is a reason why there are pushes today for UNRWA not to be present" in Gaza, east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

UNRWA was established in 1949 to serve Palestinians who lost their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as their descendants. There are now 5.9 million registered Palestinian refugees.

Lazzarini said that he recently "called on the members of the Security Council for an independent investigation and accountability for the blatant disregard of UN premises, UN staff, and UN operations in the Gaza Strip."

As of Tuesday, 180 UNRWA staff have been killed in the war, 160 premises have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 400 people have been killed while seeking the protection of the UN flag, Lazzarini said.

- 'Accountability' -

Vacated UNRWA premises have been used for military purposes by the Israeli army or Hamas and other militant groups, while UNRWA staffers have been arrested and even tortured, he added.

Lazzarini stressed an investigation was necessary "to have accountability, in order not to set a new low standard in future conflict situations," Lazzarini said.

Allegations by Israel in January that some UNRWA staff participated in the Hamas attacks led to many donors freezing some $450 million in funding at a time when Gaza's 2.3 million people are in dire need of food, water, shelter and medicine.

Many countries have since resumed their donations, while others, including the United States -- which passed a law blocking funding until at least March 2025 -- have not.

"In terms of our funding of UNRWA, that is still suspended. We're gonna have to see real progress here before that gets changed," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.

Lazzarini said UNRWA was operating "hand to mouth for the time being" but said that online fundraising to the agency totaled $100 million since October 7, in "an extraordinary indication of grassroots solidarity."

Israel has repeatedly equated UNRWA with Hamas, the militant group responsible for the October 7 attack which resulted in the death of around 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

At least 34,183 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel's retaliatory bombabardments and ground offensive, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.