US says Israel should allow UN Palestinian agency chief into Gaza

US says Israel should allow UN Palestinian agency chief into Gaza
US says Israel should allow UN Palestinian agency chief into Gaza

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Palestinians gather to receive aid outside an UNRWA warehouse as Gaza residents face crisis levels of hunger. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, March 20 — The United States said yesterday that the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees should be allowed into war-ravaged Gaza, after Israel said he was denied entry because he made paperwork errors.

Israeli officials have long criticised the UN Relief and World Agency for Palestinian Refugees, known by its initials UNRWA, and ramped up pressure after several of the agency’s employees were alleged to have participated in the October 7 attack on Israel.

A day after UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini publicly complained that Israel blocked him, the United States, Israel’s main ally, defended the need for him and his staff to visit Gaza, where the United Nations has warned of impending famine.

“Our belief is that they should be able to visit UNRWA’s fields of operation, including in Gaza, and we’re going to continue to work with the government of Israel to rapidly approve all requested visas for UN and NGO workers,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.

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“All regional governments need to do what is necessary to enable the humanitarian response and this of course includes allowing the free movement of international staff,” Patel said.

He stopped short of commenting on the circumstances of the incident and whether the United States has raised the case specifically with Israel.

Cogat, an Israeli defence ministry body governing civilian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, said Monday that Lazzarini had not followed “the necessary coordination processes and channels” when requesting entry into Gaza.

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“This is another attempt by UNRWA to blame Israel for their own mistakes,” Cogat said Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

A United Nations spokesman, Farhan Haq, told reporters that the world body “did not receive what we thought was a valid explanation” for the denial of entry.

‘Quite unprecedented’

Lazzarini said that all members of his delegation were allowed to enter and that he was rejected “in my capacity as a commissioner general”.

“It’s quite unprecedented that the head of the main UN agency present in Gaza be denied,” he said Tuesday in Jerusalem, where he was allowed to travel from Cairo.

Lazzarini, a veteran of UN and other humanitarian missions, said last month that he believed Israel’s aim is “destroying UNRWA”, long at the forefront of relief efforts and education in Gaza.

Israel has accused 12 of UNRWA’s roughly 13,000 Gaza employees of participating in the October 7 attack, which prompted the Israeli military campaign, and accused the agency of being a front for Hamas.

It would have been Lazzarini’s first trip since the allegations, which he has promised to probe.

The United States and several other donors suspended funding for UNRWA pending the investigation, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the agency’s humanitarian work invaluable.

UNRWA last week said an Israeli strike hit one of its remaining food distribution centres in Gaza, with Israel saying it killed a Hamas militant.

The treatment of UNRWA has heightened the criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by lawmakers from President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, in a CBS News interview Sunday, said that Israeli charges that UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas were “flat-out lies” aimed at getting rid of the agency.

“If you cut off funding for UNRWA and Gaza entirely, it means more people will starve, more people won’t get the medical assistance they need,” he said.

Representative Ro Khanna called Israel’s explanation for denying entry to Lazzarini “shocking” and a sign of the “extremism” under Netanyahu. — AFP

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