Head of UN Aid Agency in Gaza Warns It Is at ‘Breaking Point’

The main United Nations aid agency that serves Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere in the region has “reached a breaking point,” its leader has warned, as donors have pulled funding from the agency and Israel imposed further restrictions on its operations and called for its closure.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, the chief lifeline for Gaza’s besieged population of 2.2 million people through the Israel-Hamas war, has lost $450 million in donor funding, including from the United States, since Israeli allegations that 12 of the agency’s employees were involved in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack.

Absent new funding, UNRWA, the largest aid agency on the ground in Gaza, says that its reserves will be gone by March, even as aid groups warn that Gaza is on the verge of famine.

“I fear we are on the edge of a monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security, and human rights,” Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner general, wrote in a letter to the president of the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.

Fewer aid trucks have entered Gaza this week than earlier in the year, when between 100 and 200 aid trucks were arriving on most days; both border crossings used for aid have frequently closed, sometimes because Israeli protesters have blocked a crossing. A total of 69 trucks entered on Tuesday and Wednesday, the agency said. It added that it is aiming for 500 per day to meet Gaza’s needs.

The International Court of Justice has ordered Israel to take immediate steps to facilitate the aid Gaza desperately needs, which UNRWA would normally play a central role in distributing. But Israeli officials have argued that its employees’ alleged links to Hamas fundamentally compromise the agency.

Israel has claimed that at least 10 percent of the agency’s staff is affiliated with Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. UNRWA’s leaders say the agency tries to ensure its 13,000 employees in Gaza uphold standards of neutrality, and that it shares the names of its staff with Israeli authorities, but they say it is not possible to track the private allegiances of all its employees.

A proposal for Gaza’s postwar future shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Thursday night with members of his cabinet called for UNRWA to be closed in Gaza and replaced “with responsible international aid agencies.”

Israeli officials have taken a series of actions against UNRWA since the day the allegations became public, which was the same day the international court issued its aid order. Israeli officials have said they would revoke its tax exemptions and other privileges as a U.N. agency, limit visas for staff and suspend shipment of its goods in and out of Israel.

Mr. Lazzarini argued that Israel wanted to close UNRWA to make it impossible to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He cited a map that Mr. Netanyahu presented to the U.N. General Assembly in September that showed the Palestinian territories of Gaza and West Bank within Israel’s borders.

Israel’s calls to close UNRWA are “not about the agency’s neutrality,” Mr. Lazzarini wrote in his letter to the president of the U.N. General Assembly. “UNRWA’s mandate to provide services to Palestine refugees within this same area is an obstacle to that map becoming a reality.”

Mr. Netanyahu has previously rejected the concept of an independent Palestinian state, though his plan released Friday did not explicitly rule it out. The plan does not say whether Israeli settlers would be allowed to move back to Gaza, from which they withdrew in 2005.

As part of Israel’s crackdown on UNRWA, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, issued a directive not to transfer food aid for Gaza that has been lingering in the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod to the agency. U.N. officials will instead funnel the aid — 1,050 containers holding mostly flour — through the World Food Program, Jamie McGoldrick, a top U.N. humanitarian official in Jerusalem, told reporters on Thursday.

The Israeli authorities did not immediately confirm that the flour was cleared to enter Gaza. A spokeswoman for Israel’s customs office said U.N. shipments not intended for UNRWA were “being released as normal,” but declined to comment on specific cargo.

Mr. Smotrich’s office called the move a positive step toward further hobbling UNRWA’s ability to operate in Gaza. “If that’s true, then excellent,” said Eytan Fuld, a spokesman for Mr. Smotrich. “That was the goal.”