UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini claimed his organization “did not know” about the Hamas data center; Israel: “Oh, you knew.”
A Hamas data center has been found underneath the Gaza headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, replete with servers, electricity, a backup power station and living quarters for terrorists.
The development comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented photos last week to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken showing a giant tunnel underneath UNRWA headquarters.
On Saturday, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini denied any knowledge of the data center.
“UNRWA is a human development and humanitarian organization that does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises,” Lazzarini wrote in a lengthy post to X.
“These recent media reports merit an independent inquiry that is currently not possible to undertake given Gaza is an active war zone. The Israeli Authorities have not informed UNRWA officially about the alleged tunnel,” he added.
The Israeli military quickly retorted: “Oh, you knew.”
“Digging a tunnel takes longer than four months,” responded Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). “We invited senior U.N. officials to see, and during past meetings with you and other U.N. officials, we stated Hamas’s use of UNRWA’s headquarters. You chose to ignore the facts so you can later try and deny them.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz likewise weighed in, demanding Lazzarini step down.
“The exposure of UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters’ deep involvement with Hamas, including its use for terror activities and as an access point to terror tunnels, requires immediate action,” said Jerusalem’s top diplomat.
“Lazzarini’s claim of unawareness is not only absurd but also an affront to common sense. His prompt resignation is imperative,” he added.
The U.N. agency has been embroiled in scandal since last month’s revelation of the involvement of 12 UNRWA employees in Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre.
One of the UNRWA workers is accused of kidnapping a woman, another of participating in the Kibbutz Be’eri massacre in which nearly 100 people were killed, and a third of distributing ammunition.
Israeli intelligence believes that around 10% of UNRWA’s 12,000-strong Gaza staff have ties to Islamist terrorist groups.
At least 15 countries subsequently halted funding to UNRWA, and last week Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich ordered the annulment of tax benefits Israel grants UNRWA as a U.N. agency.
In parallel, Jerusalem is looking into alternatives including redirecting aid to the Palestinians through the U.N.’s World Food Programme.
Since Oct. 7, UNRWA has come under fire several times, with reports released by IMPACT-se and U.N. Watch documenting UNRWA employees expressing support for the Hamas attacks on social media.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu told a visiting delegation of United Nations ambassadors that “UNRWA is totally infiltrated [by] Hamas.”
“I think it’s time that the international community and the U.N. itself understand that UNRWA’s mission has to end. UNRWA is self-perpetuating,” Netanyahu told the diplomats.
“It is self-perpetuating also in its desire to keep alive the Palestinian refugee issue. And we need to get other U.N. agencies and other aid agencies replacing UNRWA if we’re going to solve the problem of Gaza, as we intend to do. There are other agencies in the U.N. There are other agencies in the world. They have to replace UNRWA,” he continued.
The Palestinians are the only refugee population with its own dedicated U.N. agency. The rest of the world’s refugees fall under the mandate of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Israel’s biggest criticism of UNRWA is that unlike the UNHCR, the agency defines refugee status as hereditary and irrespective of citizenship in other countries, resulting in the number of Palestinian refugees increasing over time.
UNRWA “has been in the service of Hamas and its schools, and in many other things,” said Netanyahu. “I say this with great regret because we hoped that there would be an objective and constructive body to offer aid. We need such a body today in Gaza. But UNRWA is not that body. It has to be replaced by some organization or organizations that will do that job.”
Image: A Palestinian man outside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Gaza City protests cuts to aid on June 20, 2023. Credit: Anas-Mohammed/Shutterstock.