Netanyahu urges UN refugee agency for Palestinians be shut down
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Netanyahu urges UN refugee agency for Palestinians be shut down

After Gaza tunnel uncovered beneath school, PM reveals he told US envoy Nikki Haley the time may have come to close UNRWA

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinians receive aid at a United Nations distribution center (UNRWA) in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 31, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians receive aid at a United Nations distribution center (UNRWA) in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 31, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for the closing of UNRWA, the United Nations’ agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, saying he had already urged the US envoy to the world body to consider pushing for it to be shuttered.

On Sunday, two days after the announcement of a tunnel that was discovered June 1 underneath a UNRWA-run school in Gaza, Netanyahu said he told US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley during her visit to Israel last week that it was time to reconsider the agency’s existence.

“Hamas uses schoolchildren as human shields. This is an enemy we have been fighting for many years and committing a double war crime: On the one hand, they deliberately attack innocent civilians, and on the other hand they also hide behind children,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, said he instructed the Foreign Ministry’s director-general, Yuval Rotem, to file an official complaint at the UN Security Council. On Saturday, Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon wrote a letter of complaint to the president of the Security Council.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on June 7, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on June 7, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Netanyahu said that on Wednesday he told Haley, who was visiting Israel for the first time, that it was time for the UN to “re-examine UNRWA’s continued existence.”

Created in 1949 in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence, UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, operates schools and provides health care and other social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Netanyahu accused the organization of inciting against Israel while doing nothing to help the plight of Palestinian refugees. He asked why they needed a specific body, when the UN High Commission for Refugees has helped tens of millions of displaced persons since World War II.

“The time has come to dismantle UNRWA and have its parts be integrated into the UN High Commission for Refugees,” he said, accusing the body of “perpetuating” the plight of Palestinian refugees.

While UNRWA is often the target of heavy criticism for alleged anti-Israel rhetoric promoted at its schools and for turning a blind eye to terrorist activity taken place at its premises, Israeli officials have in the past stopped short of calling for its closing.

Responding to Netanyahu’s statement, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said only the UN General Assembly, which extended the body’s mandate by three years in 2016, could shut down the agency.

“The situation of Palestine refugees needs to be resolved as part of a political resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is time for political action to resolve this long-standing crisis,” he said.

UNRWA on Friday strongly condemned Hamas for digging a tunnel underneath the Maghazi Elementary Boys A&B School and the Maghazi Preparatory Boys School in Gaza.

“It is unacceptable that students and staff are placed at risk in such a way,” Gunness said in a statement at the time. “The construction and presence of tunnels under UN premises are incompatible with the respect of privileges and immunities owed to the United Nations under applicable international law, which provides that UN premises shall be inviolable. The sanctity and neutrality of UN premises must be preserved at all times.”

Illustrative: Palestinian children attend a class at the UNRWA elementary school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, April 2013. (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Illustrative: Palestinian children attend a class at the UNRWA elementary school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, April 2013. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, over the weekend urged the Security Council and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to intervene in the matter. “The UN must act immediately to ensure that their structures and institutions are not being used to harbor the terror infrastructure of Hamas,” he said in a statement.

“This tunnel verifies what we have always know, that the cruelty of Hamas knows no bounds as they use the children of Gaza as human shields. Instead of UN schools serving as centers of learning and education, Hamas has turned them into terror bases for attacks on Israel,” Danon said.

Dozens of tunnels crisscrossing the Gaza Strip and crossing into Israel were used by Hamas during Israel’s 2014 war with the terror group to move troops and supplies and carry out sneak attacks inside the Jewish state. Israel fears new tunnels are being dug, though it is working on a subterranean barrier meant to block them.

Hamas on Friday denied the UNRWA report, with spokesman Fawzi Barhoum saying the group “strongly condemns UNRWA’s allegations.” Barhoum also said Hamas clarified the issue with other groups that denied having any “resistance-related works” in the area.

The incident wasn’t the first time Hamas has used UNRWA premises for its purposes or the first time the agency has been otherwise linked to the terror group.

Hamas is listed as a terror organization by the United States and most of Europe, including some of UNRWA’s top funders.

Illustrative photo of a tunnel opening discovered by the IDF in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)
Illustrative photo of a tunnel opening discovered by the IDF in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)

Israel has long claimed that some of UNRWA’s Palestinian employees support terrorist activities and spread anti-Semitism online.

Unrelated to the incident, UNRWA on Saturday released a statement marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, during which Israel captured East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Golan and the West Bank.

“The occupation remains a key obstacle to the realization of a just and lasting solution for the seven-decade-long plight of Palestine refugees, and it continues to be one of the most salient aspects of a historical injustice that has cast a shadow over their lives since 1948,” the statement said.

“At heart, the occupation is also a denial of dignity and fundamental rights,” the statement read.

Dov Lieber and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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