Humanitarian assistance alone cannot stop the next Gaza war, says UNRWA head

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini in Gaza City on May 23 (Emmanuel Dunand - AFP)

James Haines-Young

The National  /  May 25, 2021

Philippe Lazzarini was on the ground in Gaza as soon as ceasefire began.

After the latest Gaza war, the international community needs to engage in concerted efforts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said on Tuesday.

It must help to break the cycle of violence for good, he told The National.

“We have to show to the people that there can be a different future than the one to just expect the fifth round of a deadly conflict,” he said.

“I genuinely believe that providing humanitarian assistance will not be enough to prevent a new cycle of violence in Gaza.”

The head of the UN agency for Palestinians was on the ground in Gaza as soon as the ceasefire halted 11 days of rocket fire and air strikes on May 21 to assess the damage and look at deploying emergency assistance.

The fourth conflict between Hamas and Israel since 2006 left at least 248 dead in Gaza – mostly civilians including at least 66 children – and 12 dead in Israel, including two children.

“I have really been struck by how deeply, deeply shaken the people in Gaza have been after this 11 days of bombardment – they all basically described hell on earth and they were eloquently expressing their constant, gripping fear during these 11 days of relentless bombardment,” he said.

“All the people I met – whether the staff at the hospital or in the camps or in the schools – we’re all having stories about how they were handling this feeling of terror. [They were] constantly wondering if they would survive, constantly wondering if their children would survive, people trying to … make this kind of choices at night, whether they should all sleep together or if they should be scattered,” Mr Lazzarini added.

Mr Lazzarini said the agency’s 13,000 Palestinian staff in Gaza were working to get the provision of government level services from education to healthcare to basic provisions running again as quickly as possible.

During the conflict, more than 70,000 people displaced from their homes by the fighting sought refuge in UNRWA schools in the strip. Only a few hundred whose homes were damaged or are unable to go back remain but Mr Lazzarini said that work was needed to turn spaces back into classrooms and get children back to school before the summer holiday.

“In Gaza, we have multiple priorities right now – the damage assessment has to go ahead and we have also to prepare our school to allow kids to come back. … The Covid response will be a top priority also and the assessment of the damages on the shelters and home of the Palestinian refugees.”

UNRWA will also try, Mr Lazzarini said, to provide “psychosocial support, not only to the population, and to the refugees, but also to our 13,000 staff who will also play an important role in supporting the community.”

Mr Lazzarini also warned that even as the focus was on the immediacy of the war, Covid-19 remained “omnipresent” in Gaza while a new surge in cases was likely with both prevention measures and vaccinations “put on hold”.

Gaza’s lab to processes PCR tests is operational again after being damaged in the fighting, Mr Lazzarini said, but time would tell if the displacement centres and people sheltering from air strikes led to super spreader events.

“We need to increase the availability and the accessibility of vaccine in the Gaza Strip … There is no doubt the vaccination coverage right now is far too low, to prevent the new surges of Covid,” he said.

For years, UNRWA has faced an acute shortage of funds to run day-to-day operations for Palestinians not just in Gaza and the West Bank but across the Middle East.

Mr Lazzarini said that the financial situation today was better than just a few months ago when basic salaries were at risk and an emergency appeal is looking to fill the gap from the new acute needs.

“The backbone of UNRWA is our staff – our health workers, our doctors, our teacher, our engineers. So, whenever there is an emergency, they are our front-liners, hence the importance to have our core budget fully supported,” he said.

“Then, obviously, in emergencies like this one, you have additional order needs emerging – we were talking about the psychosocial support, we were talking about shelter and houses being damaged. Palestine refugees having lost their livelihood, all this needs to be restored,” he said.

“It goes two-prong – the importance of fully funding our core budget so that … our assets (being primarily our human resources) can continue to play this front-line role and after that this emergency appeal came out to cover the additional needs triggered by this last cycle of violence.”

Mr Lazzarini said that the agency is still assessing the reconstruction needs in the strip, with early assessments expected later this week, and there is no word yet on a dedicated emergency donor summit.

But, he said, there are “already a number of countries indicating the willingness to support the appeal of UNRWA”.

Israel has been clear that it wants to ensure that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has no hand in reconstruction and is not able to siphon off resources for military use. Asked about this, Mr Lazzarini said, “UNRWA is a director implementer and, basically, whatever UNRWA provides in the Gaza Strip is being provided to the Palestinian refugees directly.”

Through the agency’s local staff, UNRWA is trying to ensure that the basic needs of nearly 2 million people in Gaza are met.

But, he said, the broader aspirations could only be addressed with a political agreement – on such matters as the 14-year blockade on Gaza.

“I think the blockade definitely needs to be addressed and lifted, you cannot have a normal life if your life is limited in such a narrow geographical space for such a dense population, normal life and normal economic activities requires the lifting of the blockade,” he said.

“I heard people saying ‘but we want nothing else than normal life, we don’t understand any more what is going on? … Our dreams are not different than anyone else anywhere else in the world.’ And I think this is quite fundamental and central on the issue of dealing and healing this deeper psychological trauma which has really affected, in a very widespread way, the population in Gaza.”

James Hanies – Young – Foreign Editor, Abu Dhabi