UN Palestinian refugee agency vows to maintain East Jerusalem services

UNRWA’s pledge to maintain healthcare and other services comes days after outgoing mayor laid out plan to oust organization from city

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)

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees vowed Saturday to continue operations in Jerusalem despite Israeli plans to remove it.

The Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, said that education, health care, and other services to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are “important work.”

On Thursday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said Israeli authorities will take over the organization’s services, most notably schooling for 1,800 students, without giving an exact timeline.

Barkat, whose term as mayor ends at the end of the month, accused UNRWA of failing those under its purview and instead inciting terror activity.

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

According to Barkat’s 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.”

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.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat speaks during a ceremony at the Knesset, April 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Opponents of Barkat have long accused him of neglecting the eastern part of the capital, where sections on the opposite side of the security barrier do not receive basic municipal services.

The Trump administration has cut $300 million in annual aid to UNRWA, demanding reforms. Instead, the US said, it would seek other channels by which to aid the Palestinians.

The agency supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Pupils gather in front of a school run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA in Gaza City on August 29, 2018, on the first day of classes after the summer holidays. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

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.

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