Knesset committee discusses trio of bills aimed at shutting down UNRWA

Proposed legislation would ban UN’s Palestinian aid agency from operating in Israel, remove employees’ legal immunities and brand it a terrorist organization

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

MK Yuli Edelstein chairs a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, July 2, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)
MK Yuli Edelstein chairs a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, July 2, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is considering merging three bills aimed at significantly curtailing the activities of UNRWA, amid a wave of popular anger against the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the wake of the October 7 attack and the ongoing war.

The first bill, proposed by Likud MK Boaz Bismuth, would ban the organization from operating on Israeli territory and effectively erase its presence in Jerusalem.

The second, promoted by Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky, would brand UNRWA — short for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East — a terrorist organization and require Israel to cut ties with it.

The third proposal — itself a merger of two almost identical bills submitted separately by Yesh Atid MK Ron Katz and Likud lawmaker Dan Illouz, according to Illouz’s spokesperson — would strip UNRWA personnel of the legal immunities and privileges afforded to United Nations staff in Israel, such as exemptions from property taxes.

The agency provides education, health and aid to millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Israel alleges that some 10 percent of UNRWA’s staff in Gaza have ties to terror, and that educational facilities under the organization’s auspices consistently incite to hatred of Israel and glorify terror.

“UNRWA should not exist at all,” Malinovsky told the committee, calling it a “branch of Hamas” and stating that it is “a terrorist organization for all intents and purposes.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on July 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“This is an essential law for our national security. After October 7, we cannot continue as if nothing happened. We cannot allow the terror-supporting organization UNRWA to operate against us,” Illouz told The Times of Israel.

“We are fighting for our security and our future and UNRWA cannot pretend to be a humanitarian entity while harming us. That ends today.”

Israel and others have long decried the existence of a separate UN refugee agency for Palestinians, with all other refugees worldwide taken care of by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They have also highlighted the fact that Palestinians are the only refugee population that indefinitely hands down the refugee status to their descendants, meaning the number of registered refugees is ballooning rather than going down — including millions of people who haven’t been displaced during their lifetime.

During Tuesday’s debate, National Security Council legal adviser Adam Wolfson recalled that the Ministerial Committee for Legislation requested that Malinovsky and Katz’s proposals be merged with Bismuth’s for convenience — stating that the legislation should continue to advance with the agreement of relevant ministries so long as they do “not harm Israel’s international obligations or humanitarian aid.”

A Finance Ministry representative in turn warned the committee that any services provided by UNRWA in Jerusalem that would be halted under the bills would have to be covered by the Jerusalem Municipality.

A senior official from the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry replied it has been working on mapping out all the services provided by UNRWA in Jerusalem for the last six months and knows “exactly which services are required in a situation where UNRWA leaves the region and what gaps and deficiencies exist.”

Committee Chairman Yuli Edelstein encouraged the panel members in their work, complaining that a number of nations that recently took action to suspend their funding for UNRWA in the wake of October 7 have since reversed their decisions.

IDF Col. Benny Aharon shows reporters UNRWA’s server room at its headquarters in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“We remember the atmosphere after October 7, when several countries announced a delay in funding and we felt that there was finally a political success, but as we get further away from the event, more and more countries return to funding [UNRWA], claiming that there is no alternative,” said Edelstein.

He gave the relevant government ministries a week to submit comments on the legislation and said that he would sit down with Bismuth, Malinovsky and Katz to discuss whether to merge their proposals or advance them separately.

Israel has accused multiple UNRWA staffers of taking part in Hamas’s attack on October 7, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 251 taken hostage, and the IDF has found a Hamas data center located directly beneath UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, in addition to numerous findings indicating use of the agency’s assets for terror purposes.

Of the initial 12 employees accused by Israel, UNRWA fired 10 people and said the remaining two are dead. The UN later suspended investigations into several of the accused, claiming that Israel had provided insufficient evidence.

According to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, of the 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza, at least 12% are affiliated with the Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror groups, including 1,468 employees active in Hamas and PIJ. Of those, 185 UNRWA workers were active in the military branches of Hamas, and 51 in the PIJ military branch.

Israelis protest against UNRWA outside its offices in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

“In addition to these 12 workers, we have significant indications based on intelligence that over 30 UNRWA workers participated in the massacre, facilitated the taking of hostages, looted and stole from Israeli communities, and more,” Gallant said in a briefing with foreign press in February.

Earlier this year, Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf ordered the director-general of the Israel Land Authority to evict the agency from any state land it is currently occupying.

In a letter, Goldknopf instructed Yaakov Quint to “immediately halt” all agreements between the ILA and UNRWA “and remove them from the territories leased to them” by the state — such as the organization’s offices in Ma’alot Dafna and Kafr Aqab in Jerusalem.

In late May, the ILA informed UNRWA that it had 30 days to vacate its Jerusalem premises in the Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood, stating that it owed some NIS 27.1 million ($7.3 million) for operating on land belonging to Israel without consent for the last seven years.

Several weeks earlier, the agency was forced to temporarily close its headquarters in East Jerusalem after it said that Israeli locals set fire to areas at the edge of the sprawling compound.

A Grade 5 Arabic language book produced by the Palestinian Authority education ministry and adopted by UNRWA in its schools, glorifying Palestinian terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, a PLO member who participated in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre in Israel that resulted in the death of 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children (IMPACT-se, courtesy).

Earlier this week, more than 100 victims of the devastating October 7 Hamas assault on Israel and their families filed a lawsuit claiming $1 billion in damages from UNRWA, charging that it had aided and abetted the terror group’s assault.

The 167-page lawsuit named UNRWA as a defendant alongside seven of its past and current leaders, including head Philippe Lazzarini.

It said UNRWA, which coordinates nearly all aid to Gaza, let Hamas use its facilities for weapons storage, allowed tunnels and command centers to be built under its sites, and funneled cash into the terror group’s coffers by insisting on paying employees in US dollars.

UNRWA did not respond to requests for comment from the UK Jewish Chronicle and Fox News, which first reported on the lawsuit.

Emanuel Fabian, Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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