UNRWA chief 'cautiously optimistic' some donors will resume funding soon

FILE PHOTO: Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, attends an informal EU Development Ministers Council, in Brussels

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) -The head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency said he was cautiously optimistic some donors would start funding it again within weeks, warning it was "at risk of death" after Israel alleged some of its staff took part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

An independent review of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been launched under French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna, and her final report is expected to be published next month.

"I am cautiously optimistic that within the next few weeks, and also following the publication of Catherine Colonna's report, a number of donors will return," UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said in an interview with Swiss broadcaster RTS that was aired on Saturday.

Lazzarini told RTS that UNRWA was at "risk of death, at risk of dismantlement".

Colonna, whose work on the review began in mid-February, said on Saturday she would visit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman next week.

UNRWA, which provides aid and essential services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and across the region, has been in crisis since Israel accused 12 of its 13,000 staff in Gaza of involvement in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war in the Palestinian enclave.

The allegations prompted several countries, including the United States, to pause funding.

Canada and Sweden announced this week they were resuming their funding the agency, which Israel described as a "serious mistake".

"The return to funding UNRWA will not change the fact that the organization is part of the problem and will not be part of the solution in the Gaza Strip," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

When the allegations emerged, UNRWA fired some staff members, saying it acted to protect the agency's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, and an independent internal U.N. investigation was launched.

UNRWA said some employees released into Gaza from Israeli detention reported having been pressured by Israeli authorities into falsely stating that staff took part in the Oct. 7 attack, according to a report by the agency dated February.

"What is at stake is the fate of the Palestinians today in Gaza in the short term who are going through an absolutely unprecedented humanitarian crisis," Lazzarini told RTS.

UNRWA runs schools, clinics and other social services in Gaza, and distributes humanitarian aid. The U.N. has said some 3,000 members of staff are still working to deliver aid in the enclave, where it says 576,000 people - one quarter of the population - are a step away from famine.

"The agency I currently manage is the only agency that delivers public services to Palestinian refugees," Lazzarini said.

"We are the quasi-ministry of education, of primary health. If we were to get rid of such a body, who would bring back the million of girls and boys who are traumatised in the Gaza Strip today back to a learning environment?"

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)