Philippe Lazzarini holds one of the most challenging positions in the whole of the 51勛圖. As head of the 51勛圖 Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he is leading the backbone of the humanitarian operation in Gaza.

※Ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire. If we have a ceasefire and the opening of the crossing, and we can flood assistance to the Gaza Strip, we would be able to prevent this catastrophe.§

Following the devastating terror attacks by Hamas and others on 7 October, Israel*s military operations in Gaza have brought unspeakable death and destruction.

2.2 million Palestinians are in the midst of an epic humanitarian catastrophe. The world*s leading experts on food insecurity have clearly documented that famine in the northern part of Gaza is imminent. The healthcare system is collapsing. Desperation and scarcity have led to a near-total breakdown in law and order.

※[...] yet we are here seeing unfolding under our watch, our eyes, one of the fastest evolving looming famines, which has been completely fabricated. It's man-made. And which can easily be reversed through political will and political decision. It is deeply frustrating, but it's outrageous and makes me very angry [...] §

In this episode**, Philippe Lazzarini reflects on the trauma of the past months and the human cost of war.

** Episode recorded on 22 April 2024



Related links from the UN

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Multimedia and Transcript





Melissa Fleming 00:00

Imagine if it were your job to provide help to the people of Gaza. Would you be able to sleep at night? And what would you be hoping for?


Philippe Lazzarini 00:10

Ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire. If we have a ceasefire and the opening of the crossing, and we can flood assistance to the Gaza Strip, we would be able to prevent this catastrophe.


Melissa Fleming 00:32

Philippe Lazzarini, who is from Switzerland, is Commissioner-General of the 51勛圖 Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, also known as UNRWA. It's one of the most challenging positions in the UN right now. From the 51勛圖, I'm Melissa Fleming. This is Awake at Night. Welcome, Philippe.


Philippe Lazzarini 01:02

Thank you for having me, Melissa.


Melissa Fleming 01:05

You lead UNRWA, which serves almost 6 million Palestinians in the Middle East with education, health care and other essential services. But of course, since the horrific Hamas terror attacks on Israel on October 7th, as well as the hostage taking, and Israel's brutal military response, your work is now dominated by the war in Gaza in which thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed. When you think of the situation in Gaza, Philippe, there must be so much keeping you awake at night. What is really at the forefront?


Philippe Lazzarini 01:45

There is definitely a lot keeping me awake at night. What happened with the 7th of October has been unprecedented. It has caused a deep national trauma in Israel. But the response to October 7th also has been absolutely unprecedented - horror and tragedy impacting the people in Gaza. What keeps me awake at night is that, you know, we are under extraordinary pressure. There is a campaign going on trying to equate Gaza and the Gazans with Hamas, trying to equate the UN with Hamas and UNRWA with Hamas. And basically, today the Israelis are asking for the dismantling of the agency.


Melissa Fleming 02:32

Extraordinary numbers of deaths, missing, injured, destruction, and many of those who died were your own staff members. How does that make you feel? I mean, does that make your resolve even greater to try to keep UNRWA going?


Philippe Lazzarini 02:52

Oh, it makes definitely my resolve much greater. It's not only the killing, which is unprecedented. As of today, 180 UNRWA staff have been killed since the beginning of the war in Gaza. But beyond the killing, there has been also a blatant disregard of the UN, 51勛圖 in general, its premises, its operational space and also its staff. I have drawn the attention of the members of the Security Council, reminding them that not only 180 staff have been killed, but 160 of our premises have been targeted - are either completely destroyed or are damaged.

Four hundred people have been killed while seeking protection of the 51勛圖. We have staff which have been arrested, mistreated, tortured, and then released. And basically, we have also installations which have been used for military purposes, either by the Israeli forces or by Hamas or other armed groups in the Gaza Strip. And this is a blatant disregard of the 51勛圖, blatant disregard of the humanitarian action. And I believe that we need accountability for this. We need to call for an investigation to make sure that this is not becoming the new norm in the future and elsewhere.


Melissa Fleming 04:24

The attacks by Hamas on the 7th of October were just so horrible, so horrific, so inhuman. But some people accuse you of not condemning them and that you are somehow linked to Hamas. I mean, what do you say to that and how does that make you feel?


Philippe Lazzarini 04:45

I have been very clear. I have condemned this attack. I have stressed that this was an attack of a terrorist nature. It was absolutely horrific and abhorrent. There is absolutely no doubt. And we should never underestimate the suffering on the Israeli side and the trauma this attack has also caused. On the other hand, I've also been very clear that this should be no justification to conduct a war without respecting any rules. And this is the impression that we had about the disproportionate impact of the response. Indeed, today we are talking about an unprecedented number of people killed in the Gaza Strip, among them a lot of children, more than 13,000 children.

I have even described at a given time that this is a war against the children. We have much more children killed in the Gaza Strip in six months than the number of children killed in four years across all the conflicts in the world. We talk about already 17,000 unaccompanied children. We talk about more than 1000 children who have been amputated, most of them even without anesthesia in the Gaza Strip. And today we have half a million girls and boys at the age of primary and secondary school deeply traumatized, living in the rubble in the Gaza Strip.

But it does not mean that we are not condemning the attack of October 7th. The problem in this war is people who express deep empathy for the Palestinians are incapable to express a similar empathy for the Israelis, or vice versa. This deepening polarization, this dehumanization, the inability of the people to really feel compassion for the other.


Melissa Fleming 06:56

Yeah. And I think it seems on the Israeli side, of course, that the ongoing festering pain is linked also to the continued holding of so many hostages. Is there any appeal that you have made on behalf of these hostages, and how does...? Have you ever thought about their condition?


Lazzarini listens to people inside a courtyard of a school turned into makeshift housing. The space is overcrowded with people and hanging laundry everywhere.
Lazzarini talking with people in a courtyard of a school that has been turned into makeshift housing. The space is overcrowded with people and hanging laundry everywhere.


Philippe Lazzarini 07:17

I have mentioned in many of my interventions to the 51勛圖 the plight of the hostages and called also for the release of the hostages. But the first thing we need is a call for a ceasefire. We need a ceasefire. We need the hostages to be released. We need the beefing up, scaling up of the humanitarian response in the Gaza Strip. We need to improve the protection of the civilians. And also, to tell them that, you know, there is still a future because people in Gaza don't see their future anymore. There have been cycles of conflict hitting the Gaza Strip, but each time people believed that there might be a better time. There was always a kind of rehabilitation. But this time everyone realized that the situation will never ever go back to what it was before this conflict.


Melissa Fleming 08:19

I mean, some people say that there must be so many people suffering under PTSD. But actually, for people living in Gaza, PTSD doesn't exist because it's perpetual, is what the "P" stands for.


Philippe Lazzarini 08:32

Yeah, it's definitely perpetual. It's collective. It's individual. It will take decades basically to heal. I also share this message to the members of the Security Council saying the peace process, per se, might not be enough to promote a lasting peace. We need also to heal the soul of the people, and we have to acknowledge how deeply traumatized they have been. They need to, you know, reconnect. And this will take a lot of time.


Melissa Fleming 09:07

I mean, you mentioned when you were talking about the children, the large numbers of just unaccompanied. Unaccompanied is a term that means they are orphans. Their whole family have died. What does that...? How does that make you feel? And what do you see as a future for these children?


Lazzarini stands amongst childten in a school with a woman next to him.



Philippe Lazzarini 09:29

It's very difficult to envisage the future nowadays in a context where all the political avenues seem to be shut down. In a context where we are still talking about more military operation and offensives to come in the Gaza Strip. And the more we wait, the more we will make the future of these children uncertain.

The kids in Gaza, as we know, are deeply, deeply traumatized, are living in absolutely unbelievable appalling living conditions in overcrowded either shelters or in the street, in the rubble. Their schools have been completely destroyed. As a top priority, once a ceasefire is concluded, we have to find a way to bring them back into an education setting. But to do this we will also need to help them to heal their trauma. And this is definitely a top priority.

And I keep saying, if you are trying to get rid of an organization like ours, you are also getting rid of the main instrument which could offer and propose a better future for the children in Gaza. We are the only ones having 10,000 teachers ready to reactivate or restart the teaching for the children. If the agency is gone, there is no one else to take over because there is no functioning administration. There is no functioning a state in the Gaza Strip. So, I keep also warning that dismantling UNRWA not only would have an impact on our collective ability to respond to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, but it will also compromise the future of half a million kids, because there is no one else to step in to offer education and a better future for them.


Melissa Fleming 11:47

I mean, Israel very openly says that it's UNRWA's mandate that is the reason, is the primary reason why they want the dismantling of UNRWA. And then often mistakenly say that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which is responsible for all the other refugees in the world, has a different kind of mandate. And there, there are no perpetual refugees. And yet, I mean, you've been around the world. I have too. I've met many great-great grandchildren who are refugees because they're unable to return to their countries or places of origin. What do you say to that about the mandate? What is it about the UNRWA mandate that is so disputed?


In a throng of people, Lazzarini - wearing an UNRWA blue vest - walks outdoors and chats with a woman - herself wearing a veil.



Philippe Lazzarini 12:31

We are talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the longest lasting unresolved conflict. It's not because the Member States have given a mandate to UNRWA to provide public-like services to the Palestinian refugees that today there is still no two-State solution. If there is no two-State solution, it's because of inability of the international community and the parties to have reached such a solution. So, I do believe that this argument is pretty dishonest.


Melissa Fleming 13:05

What do you say to people when they say, 'You know, why can't UNRWA just go away?'


Philippe Lazzarini 13:12

I would have dreamed to be the last Commissioner-General because that would mean I would hand over the services and the mandate of UNRWA to a nation state. The entire agency has been geared to be a temporary agency. Unfortunately, it's a lasting temporary after 75 years. But still, our staff - and this is different from any other UN agencies - are more compared to civil servants. They are primary teachers. They are primary health workers. And in fact, we are always trying to get ready to be able to transfer our services and our activities to a future state of Palestine.

So, I would absolutely love to be the Commissioner-General phasing out. Unfortunately, we are not yet under this scenario. In the contrary, there are now pushes to try to dismantle the agency in the absence of a political solution. And I also strongly believe that if this would take place, it would undermine the future aspirations of the Palestinians for self-determination, and it would definitely undermine the prospect of a lasting, fair solution for the Palestinians. So UNRWA is, whether we like it or not, we are also symbolizing the expectations that the Palestinians do have for their future.


Melissa Fleming 14:50

You actually go into Gaza, and you've seen the Gaza before and after. Is there like an image that you can't get out of your mind and that you've perhaps used when you've gone into parliaments, on TV and tried to explain how bad things are?


Philippe Lazzarini 15:10

I have two images from the first time I went into Gaza, which was basically two, three weeks after the beginning of the war, when there has been a total siege. And you might recall at the time fuel was lacking everywhere to the extent that there were no bakeries functioning anymore and no water pumps functioning anymore. And so there was a huge water scarcity. And I remember my first visit in Rafah in a school, a school which should be a place for education, but it was a shelter with thousands of people, and it was already overcrowded. And I had this little girl looking in my eyes and begging for a sip of water and begging for a loaf of bread. And, you know, having four children, children of this age, and having her staring, insisting, it's something I cannot get rid of in terms of image.

I went back a few times to Gaza. But the last time I went I was also surprised and taken aback by the sudden absence of energy. And I would say, even light in the eyes of the people. A population which was just on a kind of automatic survival mode, completely exhausted, completely empty. Living in the street. Hardly sleeping basically, because at night you have bombardment, you have the drones. You live in the streets in winter. And something has completely gone. At the beginning of the war people were still in a proactive survival mode. They lost relatives. It has been a total tragedy. They lost all their belongings, but they were on the move. But this energy of even moving was not here anymore.


Among a crowd, Lazzarini listens to a woman wearing a veil. They are inside a warehouse distribution center and some supplies are on display on a table.


Melissa Fleming 17:22

Part of the role of your staff is to ensure people don't starve right now. And, you know, we had a report I believe it was in February from the most important scientific body, the IPC, saying that famine was imminent. And yet UNRWA has been forbidden from delivering in the north of the Gaza Strip, where the needs are the greatest and where people might be starving to death. How frustrated does that make you feel?


Philippe Lazzarini 17:55

I mean, it's absolutely outrageous and unbelievable that we talk about hunger in Gaza. I mean, the population has never ever encountered hunger before. And yet we are here seeing unfolding under our watch, our eyes, one of the fastest evolving looming famines, which has been completely fabricated. It's man-made. And which can easily be reversed through political will and political decision. It is deeply frustrating, but it's outrageous and makes me very angry that we are prevented now to move food from the south to the north. Indeed, as you say, the north is one of these pockets of hunger. That's where we are the nearest from a situation of starvation and famine. And even here UNRWA has been prevented now for months by the Israeli authorities to move our assistance from the south to the north.


Melissa Fleming 19:04

If you could make one appeal right now to alleviate the hunger of the people in Gaza and the suffering, what would that be?


Philippe Lazzarini 19:12

Ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire. It's only with a ceasefire that we will be able to have the necessary operational environment to access the people in need. And the ceasefire needs also to be accompanied by the opening of the crossing. If we have a ceasefire and the opening of the crossing, and we can flood assistance to the Gaza Strip, we would be able to prevent this catastrophe.


Melissa Fleming 19:44

I mean, that little girl that you mentioned was begging you for a sip of water. Where do you think she is now? And how do you think she's faring?


Philippe Lazzarini 19:54

I do believe she's still in Rafah. Most likely still in this school. But I don't know what will happen to this little girl if the military offensive of Rafah is really going ahead.


Melissa Fleming 20:13

I mean, you've seen so much war and conflict over your career. You've served in Somalia, Angola, and Lebanon, among many other places. Has anything shocked you in particular about the situation in Gaza?


Lazzarini stands inside a hospital room is in discussion with medical service professionals and staff



Philippe Lazzarini 20:29

What has shocked me the most is how quickly the social fabric, and the diversity of this society has been destroyed. And how quickly the Gazans have been treated almost like a monolithic block and how little feelings and empathy and compassion people had for Gaza. What has shocked me is how the international community has bought the narrative that indeed Gaza is Hamas.


Melissa Fleming 21:11

Gaza it is not all Hamas.


Philippe Lazzarini 21:13

Gaza is definitely not all Hamas. First of all, Hamas came in power in 2005. More than 50% of the population is under the age of 20, so have nothing to do with this. And the reality is that the people in Gaza are like you and I. They have the same kind of expectations in life, the same kind of dreams of a family, of a job, of hobbies than anywhere else. It used to be an extraordinary, vibrant society - Gaza.  


Melissa Fleming 21:54

You've been very much caught up in the kind of online vitriol and warring. I'm sure that you've received lots of love, but also plenty of hate on social media, and in other forms of media. How is that affecting you?


sitting inside a classroom, Lazzarini is chatting with a young boy and a young girl looks on



Philippe Lazzarini 22:17

I have been well advised not to read anymore all this posting in the social media. I was tempted at the beginning, and obviously it touched on some sensitive nerves, but it also distracts you of what you have to do. So basically, I use the social media to communicate, but I don't read the responses to my communication or don't read all, as you said, unpleasant, under the belt attacks we are under. Because, as you know, I am depicted as the head of a terrorist organization, which should end up to the International Court of Justice, and so on. So, the less you read, the better you feel.


Melissa Fleming 23:08

But it still is I'm sure a tremendous amount of pressure that you're under. How do you cope with all this pressure? Do you have any strategies?


Philippe Lazzarini 23:18

I don't think I have a strategy per se. I try to function also on a kind of a pilot automatic mode taking the issues one after the other. Every situation is here to be addressed in a certain way, but the stress is absolutely incredible. But not only on me, also on my staff, on my colleagues. We are a very small team, but we are a very, very, I would say tight, strong, team spirit among the people. We would all have the good reason to be completely burned out. But we also know that we cannot yet afford to be. We are also enjoying extraordinary support from headquarters, starting with the Secretary-General, who is directly involved in supporting the agency, in supporting me in my capacity of a Commissioner-General. He came recently in the region for a solidarity trip, which has boosted also the morale of the people on the ground.


Melissa Fleming 24:32

I mean, you've spent most of your career working as a humanitarian. Although you did for a short time, I believe, work for the private sector. Do you ever regret that choice that you went into this field?

Lazzarini listens to a woman who is wearing a veil. They are surrounded by interested onlookers listening intently.
Lazzarini inside a room filled with people and posters


Philippe Lazzarini 24:44

Not at all. After ten years with the International Committee of the Red Cross, I thought that maybe it was time to shift and to go to the private sector, which I did for a few years. But, as I said once to one of the associates of the private bank I was working in, that I felt I was far too much paid for what I was doing, but far too little for how much bored I was in the private bank. And it was time for me to leave because I could not see myself looking at a screen and the evolution of the market for the next coming 20 years. So, I realized how much international affairs and situation in which I was in was part of my DNA. So, my time with the private sector with a private bank was quite short - was three years between the ICRC and the 51勛圖.


Melissa Fleming 25:53

I'm looking at all the different places and projects you've been involved in and what are you most proud of?


Philippe Lazzarini 26:01

I'm always very proud when I get stories later on of people telling you how the impact on their personal life of decisions you have taken that sometimes you are absolutely not aware. And you hear it five years or ten years later. I have bumped into people who 20 years later who told me that, 'Your decisions on that day have saved my life.' And then you realize that you can have a real impact. Now, it's also scary, you know, the influence being given to you, but I think this is definitely one of the sources of motivation behind it.


Melissa Fleming 26:53

Is there a country in which you served where you feel really nostalgic for?


Philippe Lazzarini 26:59

I think I have been back in most of the countries. I've served twice in Somalia. I've served twice in Lebanon, in occupied Palestinian territories three times, twice in Angola. So, in most of the places, in fact, I have gone back. And it would be difficult for me to rank the one I felt the most. They have been so different.


Melissa Fleming 27:31

I'm hopeful you'll be able to return to a Palestine that's not an occupied Palestine.


Philippe Lazzarini 27:39

I think it's a dream of many of us. I am still hopeful. But if we look at the current trajectory on the ground, unfortunately, it seems we are getting further away from that.


Melissa Fleming 27:56

Let's hope not. I mean, so many young people have seemed to have been ignited since the beginning of this war. They're also listening to people like you. I mean, you have four children, I believe. Would you or are they following your footsteps?


Lazzarini is seen outdoors within a crowd as he speaks with UNRWA colleagues all wearing the blue UNRWA vest



Philippe Lazzarini 28:17

They're too young to follow the footsteps. The oldest is 14. So, I don't know. They might. Maybe one or two of them. But I think it's far too early. But they are very much aware of what their dad is doing. They have been very much exposed also to the countries where we have been because they are all born in different countries. And they have only recently moved to Geneva, which is for them also somehow a new country.


Melissa Fleming 28:53

And I believe your wife is a human rights lawyer.


Philippe Lazzarini 28:57



Melissa Fleming 28:57

So, your conversations at the dinner table must not be about the weather.


Philippe Lazzarini 29:03

Not really. Not really. It's a lot about how do we better promote, for example, accountability.


Melissa Fleming 29:13

Is it possible to combine life in the field with family life?


Philippe Lazzarini 29:19

It is possible. I mean, we are trying, but there is a cost, obviously. I'm on the move most of the time. I don't see the children as much as I would like. And, it has also an impact on them. My youngest child, who is six years old, at the beginning was watching the news on what's going on in Gaza. But it had a negative impact on him. Couldn't sleep at night anymore. Started to ask his mother, 'How come people are killing and targeting children? And if daddy's going there, will he also be killed or not?' So basically, we decided that we have to stop having the news and the TV at home, which is helpful.


Melissa Fleming 30:15

What advice would you give young people who want to pursue a career in the international field of humanitarian, or 51勛圖 or ICRC? What would you advise them?


Philippe Lazzarini 30:27

I would definitely advise - be driven by your beliefs, your passion. Don't compromise. And by doing this you can achieve much more than what you think. But please do not join this organization to become a bureaucrat.


Melissa Fleming 30:51

Thank you, Phillip.


Philippe Lazzarini 30:53

Thank you, Melissa.


Melissa Fleming 30:55

Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working against huge challenges to make this world a better and safer place.

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Thanks to my editor Bethany Bell, to Adam Paylor, Josie Le Blond, and my colleagues at the UN: Katerina Kitidi, Roberta Politi, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, Bissera Kostova, Anzhelika Devis, Carlos Macias and the team at the UN studio. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. Additional music was by Pascal Wyse.