Analysis

Israel Closing UNRWA in East Jerusalem: Assuming Responsibility or a Political Move?

Plans to shut down all UNRWA activities would force Jerusalem to take responsibility for all Palestinians living in the city when it can barely provide necessary services to its Palestinian residents

The Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem.
Tali Mayer

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has announced a plan to shut the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in East Jerusalem. The agency cast doubt on the legality of such a step in light of Israeli agreements with the United Nations, as doubt also arose whether Barkat can carry out such a step just two months before he leaves office.

If not for the plan’s show of force and the mayor’s blatant hostility toward the city’s Palestinian residents, Barkat’s desire to take responsibility for the city’s refugee camp residents might be welcomed.

>> UNRWA says Israeli inspectors tried to raid its East Jerusalem clinic

The plan to shut UNRWA was published on Channel 2’s Thursday night news edition. Barkat gave an interview as he stood next to UNRWA’s warehouses on Ammunition Hill. For understandable reasons he didn’t give an interview next to UNRWA’s main Jerusalem activity center, in the Shuafat refugee camp. The camp, located on the opposite side of a separation barrier, is barely recognized by the city as a neighborhood and the city hardly provides it with any services. It’s UNRWA that steps in to provide the camp with education, health and welfare services.

The plan calls for the city, in cooperation with the government, to shut down all UNRWA activities in the city, including its schools – which would involve absorbing their 1,800 pupils into city schools. Mother-child medical services would also be shut down as well as the clinics run by UNRWA, and the buildings where these services operate would be seized by the city.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) West Bank Field Office complex in East Jerusalem January 3, 2018.
Ammar Awad / REUTERS

The municipality will seek to take responsibility for welfare services, and to collect the garbage and take care of cleaning up the refugee camp, instead of UNRWA.

The plan calls for the city, in cooperation with the government, to shut the UNRWA offices on Ammunition Hill, “as an illegal organization operating to advance terrorism and incitement,” a statement says.

The city’s plan to take responsibility for all the Palestinians living in the city, including refugees, might in other circumstances be welcomed, but even with UNRWA in place, the municipality barely supplies the necessary services to its Palestinian residents.

The plan calls for the city to increase the number of classrooms available for residents of East Jerusalem, where there is already a shortage in early childcare clinics as well welfare and sanitation services.

“Instead of establishing infrastructure where needed, Barkat wants to take over existing infrastructure,” says Nazreen Elayan, an attorney who recently worked with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and is knowledgeable about UNRWA’s activities in East Jerusalem.

“We are fighting for years with the city to open more mother-child centers in East Jerusalem and it hasn’t done so. So now they’re going to take over the good clinics run by UNRWA,” she said.

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The city’s statement is entitled “the end of the refugee lie.” Barkat says that the Trump administration’s decision to sharply cut UNRWA’s budget opens a window of opportunity to force the agency out of Jerusalem.

“Barkat’s decision aims to blow up the lie of the ‘Palestinian refugee problem,’ which is part of the Palestinian Authority’s propaganda under UN sponsorship and encouragement, which aims to destroy Israel by eternalizing refugee status and the perpetual call for the ‘right of return’ to Israel,” the city’s statement says.

That the city does not regard Shuafat refugee camp as a part of Israel to where the refugees seek to return exposes the truth about the municipality’s view of Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods.

Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, said the agency is worried by Barkat’s statement and that UNRWA operates on the basis of agreements still valid between the UN and Israel and General Assembly resolutions. “The statement (by Barkat) challenges the independent humanitarian, non-discriminatory actions by UNRWA and doesn’t reflect the traditionally positive dialogue between UNRWA and Israel,” he said.

The plan was welcomed by candidates running in the mayoral election, including Zeev Elkin who didn’t notice that it contradicts his plan to separate the neighborhoods beyond the separation fence from the city of Jerusalem.

Arieh King, Barkat’s rival on the right, said the mayor has published grandiose plans for a ‘King’s park’ in Silwan, and the destruction of dozens of houses in Kafr Aqeb, which were never implemented.

“These are plans for propaganda purposes only,” King said on Twitter.

Attorney Danny Seidman, an expert on Jerusalem affairs, doubts the plan is legal. “Barkat can make UNRWA’s life difficult but he can’t shut it down. This is a positive influence that doesn’t disturb anyone and supplies good services that the city is not capable of supplying. How can the mayor of Jerusalem declare war on a recognized international establishment that does no damage and is helpful? It’s all about theater, pure McCarthyism for the sake of Likud primaries,” Seidman said.