A few days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Jerusalem’s outgoing mayor Nir Barkat said he will expel the Palestinian refugee service organization from Israel’s capital. The Jerusalem Municipality, he said, would give better educational and services than UNRWA, which is “a failure,” he added.
Barkat, who has joined the ruling Likud Party and hopes for a leadership position in the next election, was speaking on Monday before the Israel Television News Company’s first Influentials’ Conference, held at the Jerusalem International Conference Center. It was the first public declaration by an Israeli official calling on the government to use its power to shut down the agency.
“UNRWA is a foreign and unnecessary organization that has failed miserably. I intend to expel it from Jerusalem,” said Barkat, who will leave office following municipal elections in October.
The mayor said he had already told his staff to prepare a plan to replace UNRWA in east Jerusalem that he said he will give to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We regard east Jerusalem Arabs as residents with equal rights. There is some good leadership in their communities, but when there is violence, they will suffer. It’s better to live together and work together,” said Barkat. “Do they really want to be like residents of Gaza or do they want to live like Israeli Arabs? We see that east Jerusalem residents respond to our investments and rapidly want to be like Israelis… The moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem made many of them realize that Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel.”
The US State Department said last week that it intends to permanently halt its $360 million of annual contributions to UNRWA that last year constituted more than a third of the refugee organization’s budgets. Some 750,000 Palestinians fled the country during Israel’s struggle for independence between 1947-1949 and received services from the UN body. Now UNRWA recognizes more than 5 million Palestinians as refugees, even though most are only descendants of those who originally left.
UNRWA, which functions in east Jerusalem as well as in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, can be closed down or its mandate changed only by a decision of the UN General Assembly. The Netanyahu government has long contended that UNRWA gives support to the Palestinian claim for their “right of return” to Israel. However, some in the Israel Defense Forces, as well as in leftist circles, argue that handicapping or abolishing the UN organization will result in more poverty in Gaza – leading to more violence by desperate people and causing a security and humanitarian crisis.
Jerusalem’s mayor argued that UNRWA, which has been responsible for services in Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp for five decades, has had a deleterious effect on the refugee situation rather than improve it. He maintained that the 30,000 Palestinian residents of Shuafat in northeast Jerusalem are unhappy with the level of schools, welfare and sanitation services provided by UNRWA and that only one out of 100 children there attend the organization’s schools, where “there is much incitement” against Israel. There are a 120,000 Palestinian in east Jerusalem villages located beyond the security barrier.
“We will close their schools and provide pupils with hope,” said Barkat, who added that already, most Palestinian youngsters in the capital take Israeli matriculation exams in better municipality-sponsored schools.
“Wherever the municipality operates, the Arab residents are more satisfied and less violent. UNRWA’s treatment of residents as refugees prevents them from advancing. There is no reason for it. It is now time to turn them from refugees into residents and to rehabilitate them. It is possible. The removal of UNRWA will reduce incitement and terrorism, improve services to the residents, increase Israelization in east Jerusalem and contribute to [Israeli] unity and sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
Palestinian officials countered that municipal services in east Jerusalem are inadequate and that Barkat’s statement was made with an eye to doing well in the Likud primaries before the next national election is held.
The Influentials’ Conference, the first since Israel TV’s Channel 2 was split into Channel 12 and Channel 13, was attended by thousands of ordinary residents and decision makers from around the country. Tami Raveh, a lawyer and chairman of the Israel Television News Company, was one of several speakers who bemoaned regular attacks on the Israeli news media by right-wing politicians and Israeli users of social media who accuse journalists of spreading “fake news.”
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, who also greeted those attending the conference, said that as his 79th birthday will be this week, he remembered the time before the Jewish state existed. “Israel must be both a Jewish state and a democracy. It can’t not be a democracy. The government must promote social fortitude.” Today, extreme views and neo-fascists who have become part of several European governments influence the political systems around the world, the popular president said.
“Arabs constitute more than 20% of Israel’s population, and they don’t dream of being citizens of any other country. We will all live here. We can’t throw people out. We have to reach understanding among all sectors. We have to find a way for all of our residents to live together.” Rivlin stressed.