Jerusalem mayor vows to oust UNRWA from city

Nir Barkat accuses recently US-defunded UN agency of failing 30,000 residents of capital’s Shuafat refugee camp, inciting terrorism

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat speaks at a conference organized by the Hadashot TV news channel, September 3, 2018. (Hadashot news)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat speaks at a conference organized by the Hadashot TV news channel, September 3, 2018. (Hadashot news)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said on Monday that he would push to expel the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency from the capital, amid an Israeli and American drive to marginalize the body.

Barkat accused the UN’s Relief and Works Agency of failing those in its care and instead inciting terror activity. He said that he had instructed city officials to prepare a plan for replacing all of UNRWA’s functions with municipal services and that he would present the scheme to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His comments came after, on Friday, the Trump administration announced it was cutting nearly $300 million in planned funding for UNRWA, and said that it would no longer fund the agency after decades of support. Instead, the US said, it would seek other channels by which to aid the Palestinians.

“Removing UNRWA will reduce the incitement and terror, will improve the services to residents, will increase the Israelization of the east of the city, and will contribute to the sovereignty and unity of Jerusalem,” Barkat said at a conference organized by the Hadashot TV news channel.

Schoolgirls watch as UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krahenbuhl, gives a press conference to launch a global campaign to support UNRWA, at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

“UNRWA is a foreign and unnecessary entity that has failed utterly, and I intend to remove it from Jerusalem,” he said. “Every aspect of UNRWA is dysfunctional and failing.”

According to Barkat, UNRWA-run schools are rife with incitement against Israel, “the sanitation under their responsibility is deteriorating, their welfare services offer no hope to residents and the satisfaction with them is very low.”

Since 1965 UNRWA has been responsible for the residents of the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, who today number some 30,000.

“The UNRWA approach to the residents as refugees blocks their development and is no longer relevant,” Barkat said, alluding to the agency’s broad, and much-criticized, definition of refugees, which it extends to the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled during the 1948 War of Independence.

“It is time to set aside the attitude toward them as refugees and see them as residents and rehabilitate them,” he said. “We will close their schools and give pupils hope and Israeli matriculation in the city’s schools, we will put an end to incitement, and we will replace their failed welfare services with our plan.

“Anywhere the municipality is active the Arab population is more satisfied and less violent.”

Senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi panned Barkat’s promise to banish UNRWA from Jeruslaem.

“Barkat’s pledge to expel UNRWA from occupied Jerusalem and shut down its services and programs is arrogant and outrageous,” Ashrawi said in a statement. “Israel is responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee problem, and it has no right to alter the mandate, duties and responsibilities of UNRWA as defined by the United Nations.”

Member of the Executive Committee of the PLO Hanan Ashrawi, speaking at a press conference on February 24, 2015 in Ramallah. (WAFA)

Barkat gave no time frame for when he intends to implement the changes.

In March he announced he would not seek a third term in municipal elections scheduled for October 30 and will instead run for Knesset on the Likud party ticket.

The US donated $355 million to the agency in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. In January the Trump administration released $60 million in funds but withheld a further $65 million it had been due to provide.

The US also indicated that it rejected the criteria by which UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees, whereby the UN agency confers refugee status not only on original refugees but on their millions of descendants.

The “right of return” is one of the key core issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that five million people — tens of thousands of living original refugees from what is today’s Israel, and their millions of descendants — should be allowed to resettle in the Jewish state. Israel rejects the demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers, and argues that other refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) are treated differently and much more quickly resettled.

Jerusalem welcomed the US decision to cut the funding.

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