UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing life saving services to 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, released a statement Friday expressing its deep concern over statements made by the Israeli Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat on plans to remove UNRWA from East Jerusalem.
Barkat announced on Thursday plans to end the UNRWA’s operations in occupied East Jerusalem, accusing the agency of “operating illegally and promoting incitement against Israel.”
Israeli media reported that Barkat plans to end the agency’s services in schools, clinics and sports centers, among others, and transfer the operations to Israeli authorities.
The Jerusalem municipality reportedly plans to shut down UNRWA schools that serve around 1,800 Palestinian children in East Jerusalem, by the end of the current school year.
In his statement, Barkat said the municipality has coordinated with the Israeli government on the move, which was prompted after the US decision to end all of its financial aid — around $300 million — to the agency earlier this year.
“The US decision has created a rare opportunity to replace UNRWA’s services with the services of the Jerusalem Municipality,” Barkat said, adding that removing UNRWA will “end the lie of the Palestinian refugee problem”.
UNRWA condemned Barkat’s statements: “[S]uch messaging challenges the core principles of impartial and independent humanitarian action and does not reflect the robust and structured dialogue and interaction that UNRWA and the State of Israel have traditionally maintained.”
The agency highlighted that it is “specifically mandated by the UN General Assembly to deliver protection and assistance to Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, pending a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“The Agency is recognized for the important work it carries out in education, health-care, relief and social services in East Jerusalem. It is determined to continue carrying out these services,” UNRWA said.
Both Israel and the US have repeatedly criticized UNRWA for the way it counts Palestinian refugees. The agency says it serves 5,226,603 registered refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The total number of refugees includes the descendants of refugees who were originally displaced during the creation of Israel in 1948.
The US has demanded UNRWA reform its operations before restoring its funding, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the total dismantlement of the agency, which he accuses of “perpetuating” the Palestinian refugee issue.
UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly to provide life-saving services such as education, health care, food assistance, and work programs for Palestinian refugees “pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.”
UNRWA relies almost entirely on voluntary donor funding, which according to the agency, has been surpassed by a growth in the number of Palestinian refugees, resulting in a severe shortage of funding for essential programs.
The UN reported in August that aid funding for the occupied Palestinian territory was at an “all-time low,” and that only a quarter of the nearly $540 million needed in funding this year has been received.
The agency currently runs 702 schools for Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, providing education to more than 500,000 students, and employing close to 22,000 teachers and staff.
With the organization scrambling to stay afloat, international and local officials have expressed fear that the recent budget cuts by the US will aggravate an already dire humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in Gaza.