Barkat: 'There are no refugees in Jerusalem, only residents'

Outgoing Jerusalem mayor lays out plan to oust UNRWA from city

Nir Barkat wants to replace UN agency services to 20,000 residents of capital’s Shuafat refugee camp with municipal provisions

Illustrative image of Palestinian schoolgirls in their small playground in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, on March 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative image of Palestinian schoolgirls in their small playground in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, on March 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Thursday detailed a proposal to expel the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency from the capital and have the municipality provide education, health, welfare, and sanitation services in its place.

Barkat, whose term as mayor ends at the end of the month, accused the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) of failing those under its purview and instead inciting terror activity.

He gave details of a plan prepared by a team of city officials and experts to replace all of UNRWA’s functions with municipal services in the Shuafat refugee camp, founded in 1965 and home to some 20,000 residents.

The plan comes after the Trump administration announced it was cutting nearly $300 million in planned funding for UNRWA, and said that it would no longer back the agency after decades of support. Instead, the US said, it would seek other channels by which to aid the Palestinians.

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

“The US decision to stop funding UNRWA creates a rare opportunity to deal immediately and decisively with the PA’s intention to perpetuate the ‘refugee problem’ and encourage incitement,” Barkat said in a Thursday statement.

“There are no refugees in Jerusalem, only residents. They will receive their services from the Jerusalem Municipality alone, like all other residents,” he added. “The municipality, at my instruction, has developed a detailed plan of action to replace all UNRWA services by the services of the Jerusalem Municipality, including education, welfare, health, and sanitation.”

According to the plan, the seven UNRWA-run schools — with a total of 1,800 students — which operate without a license from the Education Ministry will be closed at the end of the current academic year, and the pupils absorbed into existing municipal schools.

Barkat wants to expropriate or lease the existing UNRWA schools to use as municipal buildings, and in addition will construct an educational and municipal services complex near the East Jerusalem neighborhood “whose services will be far superior to those that UNRWA has provided.”

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)

The municipality will also issue closure orders for UNRWA’s medical centers, which operate without approval from the Health Ministry, and construct a new public health center in their place, Barkat said.

Existing UNRWA-run welfare programs operating within the Shuafat camp and nearby Kufr Aqeb will continue but will be transferred to the governance municipality welfare and employment services, according to Barkat’s plan.

Garbage disposal and sewage infrastructure, which Barkat said was currently under the auspices of UNRWA, will also be transferred to the municipality’s responsibility.

Other than saying he would close the schools at the end of the current academic year, Barkat gave no timeframe for when he intends to implement the changes.

Palestinian apartment buildings seen past the separation wall surrounding the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, on May 7, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In March, Barkat 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.

His replacement as mayor would not be bound by the plans prepared by Barkat’s committee.

In defunding UNRWA, the US also indicated that it rejected the criteria by which the UN agency 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 has welcomed the US decision to cut the funding.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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