Lazzarini Warns Via Asharq Al-Awsat of Imminent Famine in Gaza

Phillipe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Photo: UN
Phillipe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Photo: UN
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Lazzarini Warns Via Asharq Al-Awsat of Imminent Famine in Gaza

Phillipe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Photo: UN
Phillipe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Photo: UN

Famine in Gaza is “imminent,” warns UNRWA, if the international community does not step up its aid to more 2.2 million Palestinian civilians in the Strip.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Mr. Phillipe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), revealed after returning from his fourth trip to Gaza since the start of the war on October 7 last year, that he is launching an “independent review” through a third party to look into Israel’s allegations that Hamas and other Palestinian factions have been using the agency’s facilities in the context of destructive war in Gaza, in addition to using the civilians as “human shields.” Mr. Lazzarini acknowledged that the population is “caught between different types of agendas.”

The Commissioner-General spoke about his trip, which lasted three days and coincided with the 100th day of the war, and the “miserable conditions” the population is enduring, warning that famine had become “imminent.” He stressed that the “tragedy” has so far cost more than 20,000 lives, including between 60 percent and two-thirds of them children and women, and about 150 employees of the UN agency. He did not rule out the commission of war crimes by Israel or Hamas, but stressed that we must now “put an end to this suffering, this misery,” stressing that humanitarian organizations are in “a race against the clock in an effort to reverse the deterioration of the humanitarian situation, and to ensure that we do not have to "deal with a state of famine." He called for a “large-scale flow” of humanitarian aid and goods to “reverse” the worsening humanitarian situation.

Here is the full interview with Mr. Lazzarini:

* I want to start from here to ask you first about targeting journalists in the war in Gaza, and in the skirmishes, I would say, between Israel and Hezbollah. What are your thoughts?

Listen, I have full admiration with journalists, many in Gaza, because they are witnessing what was going on in Gaza. I have met many of the local journalists and stranger for international media. They have done an extraordinary job under impossible circumstances. I have seen the dedication, the devotion, despite the fact that basically they are sharing the same plight as the rest of the population. They themselves are displaced, their houses are destroyed, they lost relatives. And despite that, they’ve had such loyalty, commitment, the sense of mission to report and to make sure that the rest of the world knows what is going on. At the same time, they have paid a huge price. Journalists are like, in fact, the other types of volunteer. We saw the same with doctors and nurses. We saw the same, in fact, in my organization...

* That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about. I'm coming to this and I want you to comment on the huge loss of UNRWA in this war. Tell me what is exactly happening, how many have you lost?

Well, as of today, there are more than 150 staff have been killed since the beginning of the war. Many of them are teachers, nurses engineers, human resource officers or drivers. Many of them have been also killed in their houses, that have been killed with relatives since the beginning of the war. This has been, for the agency, a tragedy, but at the same time, we are talking about the ecosystem of Gaza which has been a hit in indiscriminate ways. That is the reason why, I would say all the aspects of the Gazan social fabric has been impacted and have paid a huge price since the beginning of the war. When we talk about more than 20,000 people having been killed, among them, we have a number of journalists, a number of doctors, a number of a UN staffers, but those who have also paid a huge price have been the children and the woman. It is estimated that among all those who have been killed that we have between the 60 percent to 2 third of woman and children...

* What is the number exactly of children and women?

Listen, the question is: Is the overall number exact? It is as of today the best estimate. We do not have a mechanism to independently review the number. But if I look at the number of people who were killed in previous conflicts, they were by large considered by anyone as being the best reliable number having been issued. Now if I look at the number of UN staff having been killed and compare it to the overall number of staff that we have, and compare the announcement of the people having been killed in Gaza with the overall population, I would have the same type of proportion. So I would say it's certainly the best estimate available as of today. Are they precise? Certainly not precise. Are they overinflated or underestimated? it's possible that in fact, it does not capture all the people who have been killed, and there are still a number of people remaining under the rubble in northern Gaza, but also in southern Gaza.

Normal War?

* I normally hear that: the war is a war, as the French traditional notion would mention. Isn't that normal in a war?

What is normal in a war? If you look at the old war which we have gone through in Afghanistan, is it a normal war? Yemen is a normal war? and the wars we have seen in Africa? So I don't know if there is a normal war, but I can say that in the context of Gaza, it’s a little bit the war of all the superlative, the number of people killed in such a short time in proportion to the overall population, the number of children killed in proportion with the overall number of people killed, the number of people who will have been injured in proportion of the overall population in such a short time, the fact that 90% of the population had to flee and move on multiple bases, the fact that 60% of the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip has been damaged or totally destroyed in such a short time, and the fact also that we are talking about a possible looming widespread hunger, you have a possible looming starvation - pockets might be looming also in such a short time, which is completely manmade. So in Gaza, the intensity, and the number that we're talking about are just staggering.

* Are you concerned that there might be war crimes or war against humanity committed by Israel or even Hamas or whoever?

You know, this will be determined later on by the international legal body of the international community. What we have seen over the last few months is that an entire population has been impacted. That certainly war crime might have been committed by the Israelis but also by Hamas. So all of these are issues hat will be determined later on all. For the time being, what is important is to try to put an end to this suffering, to this misery. I’ve just come back again, from a three-day trip in the Gaza Strip. It was my fourth trip there. I was really struck by how people are resigned, are exhausted, how they try to be on a kind of automatic survival mode. Basically, we’re in winter, they do not sleep, but they are sharing house within the family, just to ensure the minimum of the minimum, and even with this, you hear that people have to skip their meal one day every two days. It's a struggle to find water. People feel extremely filthy also. They are living in an absolutely appalling hygienic condition. These are all people who have been displaced multiple times, people who have lost and left everything behind, people who have lost a beloved and family member. So, the focus today is really to try to save life in the Gaza Strip. Our concern has always been, beyond the number of people who have been killed by the ongoing military operation and military hostility and the bombardment, that people have also started to die because of disease outbreak, because of hunger, because of weakened immunities, or because they cannot recover also from injuries in the Gaza Strip.

Inside Gaza

* Can you just elaborate more? Where did you go in Gaza? Which areas were you able to go?

This time I went to Rafah, to Khan Younes and to Deir El Balah. I visited our teams in these three locations. I visited also one shelter in Deir El Balah, one of our schools it was completely overcrowded. It felt almost claustrophobic being in this school. Basically, I was engaging with the people, to try to understand how they struggle on a day to day basis to keep going on and to survive. It is true I saw first-hand the living condition, the unsanitary condition. I heard stories about women who decided to try to eat as little as possible, drink as little as possible in order not to have to go to the toilet. Wearing the same clothes for weeks, having skin disease, with lice in their hair. Because of that, and this filthiness and because of this also exhaustion, and when you live it in this overcrowded condition, when you have to sleep on the concrete, when you do not have a proper mattress and blanket, and the winter is here, and you'll have the anxiety of a possible bombardment, you do not really sleep. And the woman who was describing to you, because of this process is more and more stigmatized, and ostracized also, and this is something that we know we will be also looking at. During the first two/three months, our approach was a global one. But now we have to look more into some individual cases, vulnerabilities of the people. All these people are going through an extraordinary tragedy.

* So in this very difficult situation, how much UNRWA has been able to help? Are there any other organizations who are able to move around and help people in need?

UNRWA is certainly the main organization operational and active in the Gaza Strip, but you have also a number of our partners. You have the World Food Program, you have UNICEF, at present you have the World Health Organization, but you have also the ICRC, you have also the Palestinian Red Crescent, which has also been important in terms of bringing in supply into the Gaza Strip. What we are capable to provide in terms of assistance is far from being in line or commensurate with the immensity of the needs. You have seen that at the beginning of the war, there was a total siege imposed on Gaza. We had at the beginning this shortage and crisis of lack of a fuel which impacted in fact all the aspects of the daily life and survival in the Gaza Strip. Then, trucks started to come in, the fuel started to come in, and today in fact, it's a race against the clock to try to reverse the worsening of the humanitarian situation, and to make sure that we do not have to deal in the weeks to come, with a situation of starvation and famine. There was an alert that has been issued by the World Food Program about this. So all the partners and the aid community is mobilized to try to address this. But we have also said more than once that aid is not enough. We need also commodities to be flown into Gaza at scale and in a meaningful way. You might remember that before October 7, and it was already a situation which was broadly described that has been under blockade. At that time, we had about 500 commercial trucks coming in, and a 100 to 200 trucks aid for the humanitarian community to support the population in Gaza. Today, we are talking about a total of 200 plus and this is following a very recent increase, but the need is at 10 times higher than they used to be before. That shows that we are far from being at scale. We are far from providing the meaningful, I would say, basic assistance that the population required.

Israel’s Allegations

* Mr. Lazzarini, I have to tell you that I always hear that UNRWA is accused of being used by Hamas, by other organizations and militants, and sometimes they're taking UNRWA and the population as human shields. How true are these accusations?

You know, that there have been quite a number of allegations of diverse nature, about tunnels, about weapons, about activities. In such an overcrowded environment, there is no doubt that the civilian population is paying the price, the civilian population is also trapped in between different types of agenda, and that operating within this overcrowded environment exposes unnecessarily the civilian. Now having said that, I have never ever received yet concrete allegation. In my office, I'm very much aware of like you about this allegation, but this is also the reason why I have taken the decision, in fact yesterday, I was informing a group of journalists that I will call for an independent review of all this allegation to find out what is behind it, what is the part which is disingenuous and aimed at undermining the agency, and what could be the part, the true, and to look at, after that, how is the agency dealing with this. I keep telling everyone, that as an agency, we are not operating in a no risk environment. It's an extraordinary emotional, divisive type of environment. But as an agency, we will be operating fully in line with UN principles and values, and we'll make sure that if a staffer by any chance would not be compliant with this value, that we would implement a zero tolerance policy. So there are allegations. I cannot confirm any of this allegation. I can tell you how we are handling this type of a situation, but it hasn't been enough because this allegation continues in a regular basis. You’re right, you keep hearing, I keep hearing. We keep saying this. So in order to go beyond this, I would say, unhealthy rhetoric of we are being accused, that and we are defending and responding. I have decided that I will commission an independent review about this allegation.

* When are you going to start with this review?

I hope to start as soon as possible. We have now finalized the terms of reference. And I'm now looking at identifying the best third party to undertake such a review.

UNRWA’s Fate

* That's good to hear. I also hear from the Israeli side, that they want UNRWA to be abolished altogether. They don't want UNRWA anymore, part of it because of these allegations and accusations. Is that something that should be done? I know you are the chief of the of UNRWA, and I'm asking you. How do you respond to that kind of idea that UNRWA should be all together abolished, and there is no need to it, and the population who relies now heavily on UNRWA should rely on some other type of organization?

To start with, UNRWA is a mandated organization by the General Assembly and its member states. So, this is up to the General Assembly and its member states to make the determination of what UNRWA should do, or should not do. As you said, these are ideas we hear from time to time, which sometimes have traction, especially when we talk about the context of the situation in Gaza, and what might unfold later on. The real question is, if not UNRWA, who will provide tomorrow the education to 300,000 children, boys and girls, who were in our schools. In an ideal solution, and we should never forget that, UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary organization. UNRWA was supposed to exist until the day there is a lasting and fair political solution. Now, unfortunately, for now nearly 75 years, there haven't been a fair and lasting political solution, and there haven't been an alternative provided on who else should step into the responsibility of an agency like ours. So the real question is, if we want to address, if we want to promote future peace and security in the region, we need also to genuinely invest into a proper peace process, and once you have the political - I would say - the solid political project and roadmap at the end of this direction of travel, it’s when UNRWA should be able to phase out, because a new state, or new authority, will take over the services the agency is providing. There have been also sometimes beliefs that if the agency is liquidated that the statue of the Palestinian refugees would be addressed and solved. This is a shortcut. This is naive, because even if the agency does not provide services, the statue of the Palestinian refugees will remain until the day you have a proper lasting and fair political solution.

* Meanwhile, what is your message for countries or organizations? What do you need from the international community in order to continue this very crucial work that you've been doing? And what is your message to the population in Gaza, to Israel, and even to Hamas and the other Palestinian fractions?

Well, I'm not sure I'm addressing to all the Palestinian fractions right now. But my message to the population in Gaza is that UNRWA will stay in Gaza, UNRWA will continue to support you, and express not only its solidarity but will continue to provide assistance. And we will also continue to be your voice within the international community. Now, to the region, it is important that the support to the agency be provided both financially - it is absolute key. We should never, ever forget that our funding base comes from voluntary contribution, while at the same time, we are providing public like services, such as education, primary healthcare, or social protection safety net. Now in Gaza, we have an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. So the focus has shifted for the agencies. But to respond to the needs of the people and their plight, we need resources, we need the region, the Arab world, to mobilize and to express its solidarity to the agency, beyond political support, but also by providing the necessary resources.

Lazzarini’s Concerns

* And with that note, I see that people are concerned, including you, by the potential mass transfer of people of Gaza outside the strip...

You know, you have right now an entire population of 2.2 million people who have been impacted by this war. The majority, the bulk of the population now, is concentrated in the south of the Gaza Strip. Already before, the Gaza Strip with its entire population, was considered as being one of the most overcrowded places in the world. It is even much more overcrowded right now. If you go to Rafah, its population has increased by four over the last few weeks. And Rafah is at the border. There are fears about a possible extension of the military operation towards Rafah, and here indeed, the question would be: what will desperate people do? Will they be tempted to cross the border or will they try to go elsewhere? There is not much more elsewhere safer in the Gaza Strip.

Are you concerned?

I am definitely concerned, but I'm also concerned that Gazans will not be able anytime soon to see what their future will look like. We keep talking about the day after, but the fear here is that the very day today is not over, and it might be a very long period in the in between day. The in between day might also be a period of misery, of despair, and distress. Because as of now we don't have on the table a proper political project. It will be difficult to invest in Gaza, and hence difficult to bring back even basic social services. I am very worried, for example, about the fate of half a million girls and boys, who are not in school today, who are deeply traumatized by this war, not only them, but also their families, and also the teachers. The more we wait, the more we're taking the risk to lose an entire generation, but also an entire generation after that, which will be brought up into resentment, into bitterness. This is certainly not what the region needs in the future.



Salih Muslim: Self-Administration Firm on Northeast Syria Elections Schedule

The co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
The co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Salih Muslim: Self-Administration Firm on Northeast Syria Elections Schedule

The co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
The co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main party of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), reaffirmed commitment to holding local elections in August despite increased Turkish threats of military action.

Muslim emphasized that these elections are aimed at managing local affairs in areas outside Syrian government control, stressing they have no intention to secede from Syria.

The PYD leader disclosed that US officials urged Syrian Kurds to announce the elections promptly.

He noted that Turkish reactions, which he termed “provocative,” were met with silence from the Syrian official side. He added that the Damascus regime fully understands that there are no Kurdish separatist plans from the Syrian state.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat at his office in Al-Hasakah, Muslim explained the reasons for the repeated delays in local elections in AANES regions.

“The elections were first postponed from May 30 to June 11 due to logistical issues with the Higher Elections Commission. There was a lack of preparation, possibly due to inexperience or unfamiliarity with our area,” said Muslim.

“Secondly, some political parties objected to the Commission's decision to shorten the campaign period from 20 days, as stipulated in the social contract, to just 10 days.”

“Thirdly, we wanted international and Arab observers and guests to monitor the elections.”

“However, arranging their travel takes time, especially since our region requires visas and approvals that can delay the process. We could only provide them with a 10-day notice.”

“These were the actual reasons for delaying the elections until August, despite claims linking it to American pressure and Turkish escalation.”

“It was expected, as hostile parties such as Türkiye would object to any local efforts to manage our region’s affairs,” clarified Muslim.

When asked about commitment to holding elections, Muslim said: “We are committed to proceeding with these elections as planned.”

“The decision lies with the entities involved in the Higher Commission and political parties.”

“The postponement aims to address initial shortcomings, but it is imperative that these elections proceed on schedule,” he affirmed.

As for the US reaction when elections were announced by the AANES, Muslim said: “They told us, ‘We see you are moving quickly with this.’ That was their only comment, without further explanation.”

Muslim agreed that the US might have a point regarding logistical preparations and significant deficiencies in organizing elections, particularly concerning visits by foreign delegations and observers.

However, Muslim said that the real reason behind the US caveat on rushing elections remains unclear.