Senior UN official denounces 'blatant disregard' in Israel-Hamas war after many UN sites are hit

The Commissioner-General of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Lazzarini said there is no haven in Gaza for civilians, including U.N. shelters and "safe zones" designated by Israel. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

By ABBY SEWELL Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees told The Associated Press on Wednesday there is no safe haven in besieged Gaza for civilians — not even in U.N. shelters and so-called “safe zones” designated by Israel.

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, also known as UNRWA, said in an interview with the AP that since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, more than 80 U.N. facilities in the Gaza Strip have been hit.

During the deadly Hamas-led Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel, the militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took captive some 240 men, women and children. Israel responded with an aerial bombardment and ground offensive inside Gaza that has so far killed more than 16,200 people in the enclave, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

The U.N. facilities hit “directly or indirectly” in Gaza include sites that have been sheltering civilians, Lazzarini said. UNRWA has said that more than 220 Palestinians were killed in such strikes, and that 130 of its employees also lost their lives in the war.

“There is absolutely no safe place in the Gaza Strip,” Lazzarini said, speaking to the AP in Beirut.

While the circumstances of those strikes are difficult to investigate amid the ongoing conflict, he said, “I do believe that the blatant disregard of U.N. premises … will require an independent investigation in the future.”

Israeli officials have said they don’t target U.N. facilities, but have also accused Hamas of using U.N. buildings for cover for its military activities.

The U.N. says some 1.87 million Palestinians — over 80% of Gaza’s population — have fled their homes. U.N.-run shelters currently house more than 1 million displaced in “totally overcrowded, appalling sanitary conditions,” Lazzarini said.

When he visited Gaza shortly before a seven-day cease-fire ended last week, shelters were already overcrowded with those who had fled heavy fighting in the northern half of the territory, he said. As the Israeli ground offensive pushed into the southern part of the strip, civilians have been forced into ever smaller areas along the closed-off border with Egypt.

Lazzarini said UNRWA is focusing on improving conditions in existing shelters, including its network of schools across Gaza.

“We do not want to put the people in places which are not necessarily safer, when at the same time, you have more than 1 million people in existing shelters living in appalling conditions,” he said.

Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, alleged earlier this week that “there should be pressure on” UNRWA to set up proper facilities. Israel has never explained how it expects that the small area would accommodate such large numbers of displaced people.

Lazzarini called for a new cease-fire and for opening more border crossings to allow aid and commercial goods to enter Gaza. Currently, aid can only enter the strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing, causing severe bottlenecks.

The refugee agency’s relationship with Israeli authorities has in the past been adversarial at times, with right-wing Israeli politicians accusing UNRWA, which was founded in the wake of the creation of Israel in 1948 to serve hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes, of helping perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UNRWA has pushed back against such claims, saying it is simply carrying out its mandate to serve a vulnerable population.

Lazzarini said that in the current Israel-Hamas war, UNRWA is in “constant coordination” with Israeli authorities. Post-war, he said, the agency is prepared to assist whatever body is governing the strip in restoring services that have halted, including reopening schools.

Lazzarini added that he hopes the devastating conflict will trigger a political process that will lead to a resolution that would make his agency obsolete.

“Will this become a top priority of the region and the international community that once and for all we address the longest unresolved conflict,” he asked. “If yes, there can be a trajectory of hope for the people here in the region and the future for UNRWA in fact, would very much depend on that.”


Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.