UN agency chief says Israel blocked him from entering Gaza

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said there is 'man-made starvation' in Gaza (Fabrice COFFRINI)
UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini said there is 'man-made starvation' in Gaza (Fabrice COFFRINI)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Monday Israel had blocked him from entering the war-torn and besieged Gaza Strip where the United Nations has warned of impending famine.

Israel responded that UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini had not followed proper procedure.

Lazzarini, who last month said Israel "aimed at destroying UNRWA," said he had "intended to go into Rafah today, but was informed my entry had been declined." He spoke in a Cairo joint press conference with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

Israel in January accused several of UNRWA'S roughly 13,000 Gaza employees of being involved in the October 7 attack by Hamas militants on Israel.

Lazzarini wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that he had been denied entry by "Israeli authorities".

COGAT, an Israeli defence ministry body governing civilian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, said on X that Lazzarini had not followed "the necessary coordination processes and channels" when requesting entry into Gaza.

"This is another attempt by UNRWA to blame Israel for their own mistakes," it said of the UN agency at the centre of efforts to provide humanitarian relief in Gaza.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said "all UN officials, including Mr Lazzarini and his colleagues in UNRWA, should have access to do the vital humanitarian work they do."

Guterres "certainly wants Mr Lazzarini to have access throughout the areas in which UNRWA operates", Haq told reporters.

The Israeli accusation against some UNRWA employees led multiple donor nations including the United States to suspend funding although some have since resumed or increased it including Spain, Canada and Australia.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Hyman earlier Monday reiterated what he called Israel's position, that "UNRWA is a front for Hamas".

Lazzarini has said that Israel provided no evidence against his former employees accused over the October 7 attack.

Shoukry expressed Cairo's "complete support" for the agency and criticised "unilateral actions to restrict UNRWA funding due to baseless accusations".

The Hamas attack of October 7 resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory campaign in Hamas-controlled Gaza has killed at least 31,726 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

- 'Man-made starvation' -

Among the dead are 168 UNRWA employees, according to the agency's latest figures.

Lazzarini on Monday said the UN has paid a "massive price in Gaza".

"More than 150 of our facilities have been completely destroyed in the Gaza Strip," he said.

"And a number of our staff were arrested and endured ill-treatment and humiliation during investigation."

In more than five months of war and siege, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has deteriorated to what the UN has repeatedly warned is an imminent famine.

"This is man-made starvation," Lazzarini said.

The Gaza health ministry has in recent weeks recorded at least 27 deaths from malnutrition and dehydration, most of them children.

The UN said Monday that half of the territory's 2.4 million people are experiencing "catastrophic hunger and starvation".

Humanitarian aid operations have intensified in recent weeks, including airdrops and efforts for a maritime humanitarian corridor from Cyprus, but UN and other aid agencies warn that these are insufficient to meet the desperate needs in Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, writing on X Monday, accused UNRWA of "collaboration" with Hamas and said "Israel allows extensive humanitarian aid into Gaza by land, air, and sea for anyone willing to help."