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Israel’s Campaign to Defund and Dismantle UNRWA Continues Beyond the Gaza Strip into Jerusalem
Israel’s Campaign to Defund and Dismantle UNRWA Continues Beyond the Gaza Strip into Jerusalem

The Israeli campaign against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has escalated to taking measures to replace the Agency in the Gaza Strip and evict it from Jerusalem. As an UN mandated agency that acts in accordance with States’ international responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees, Israeli actions that hinder or disrupt its mandate constitute complete disregard of international will and law. Additionally, these actions are the precursor to eliminating the issue of Palestinian refugees, whose rights to return, property restitution and compensation (reparations) have been denied by Israel since 1948. 

The UNRWA is an international agency with a permanent mandate until such time as UNGA Resolution 194 of 1948 and UNSC Resolution 237 of 1967 are put into effect. Israeli attempts to delegitimize and defund UNRWA, banning its work in Jerusalem, and obstructing and replacing its operations in the Gaza Strip, are part of its larger goal to completely dismantle UNRWA and eliminate the Palestinian refugee issue. These actions are in violation of international law, both with respect to UNRWA’s mandate, the international legal status of Jerusalem, and the obligation to provide reparations to Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons. Further, the deliberate obstruction of UNRWA services in the Gaza Strip by Israel constitutes a violation of its obligation to prevent Genocide.

The so-called ‘Constitution and Judicial Committee’ in the Israeli Knesset approved on 11 February a new draft law to evict the UNRWA from Jerusalem. The draft law was passed to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, in preparation for a first reading vote, as the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee in the Knesset will discuss this bill on 20 February. In 2018, the then Jerusalem mayor and Likud member, Nir Barkat, presented a similar bill to replace UNRWA services with municipal provisions. In cooperation with other Knesset members, he has submitted the bill again, hoping to take advantage of the current Israeli defamation campaign against UNRWA, which has led 16 states fully or partially suspending their funding. Additionally, last week Barkat organized demonstrations against UNRWA in front of its offices in Jerusalem, which were attended by representatives from the right-wing Zionist group Im Tirzu and the Tikva Forum. Former Foreign Ministry official Noga Arbell also spoke on stage, after releasing a video calling for the “destruction” of UNRWA at the Knesset.

On 12 February, the Construction and Housing Minister, Yitzhak Goldknopf, issued an immediate directive for the eviction of UNRWA from Jerusalem, specifically targeting the discontinuation of UNRWA’s office operations in Sheikh Jarah and in Kufr ‘Aqab, along with halting further lease agreements.

Israeli campaigns to demonize, disable, defund, restrict and transfer UNRWA’s responsibilities are not new. They are a component of Israel’s colonial-apartheid regime, which aims at ongoing forced displacement and transfer of Palestinians, and liquidating the issue of the 9.17 million Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons through the dismantlement of UNRWA.  

Similar calls to expel UNRWA from Jerusalem were made following Trump’s so called “Deal of the Century” and his decision to end American funding for the agency in 2019. Amongst other issues, the Trump Deal contains provisions to cater to Israel’s strategy to end the Palestinian refugee issue through serious breaches of international law. The Biden administration restored funding to UNRWA in July 2021, but included conditions that impose securitization measures on the UN mandated humanitarian agency.

The USA was one of the first states to suspend its funds in response to Israel’s newest unfounded allegations against the Agency. Additionally,  a newly proposed Republican bill called “Stop Support for UNRWA Act” is to be presented to Congress, and if passed, it would bar the USA from ever making any voluntary or assessed contributions to the Agency – in other words, permanently defund UNRWA. The defunding of UNRWA constitutes political blackmail by weaponizing humanitarian aid and deepens states’ involvement in the Israeli genocide in the Gaza Strip.

The targeting of the UNRWA’s presence and services in Jerusalem will have negative impact on the 375,000 Palestinians that reside there, but more importantly, it aims to end international presence in Jerusalem. For the Palestinian people, its presence is not just symbolic; rather, it has significant strategic political and legal ramifications. The international presence of UNRWA is a strong challenge to and firm rejection of the Israeli occupation, its sovereignty over the city, and its recognition of Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel.

Accordingly, to preserve UNRWA’s presence in Jerusalem and in the Gaza Strip, BADIL calls on:

  1. The UN Secretary General to reaffirm the entitlement of UNRWA to protection under the UN system, and states’ duty to fulfill their obligation to respect, support and facilitate UNRWA’s mandate, staff and facilities.
  2. The UN General Assembly to clearly condemn and declare the illegality of Israel’s measures aiming at delegitimizing the UNRWA presence in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and obstructing its operations;
  3. The UNRWA’s international and local staff to maintain its presence and services in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip;
  4. States to reject the elimination or replacement of UNRWA’s presence and services in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and to continue and increase their financial contributions to UNRWA.