A Jerusalem deputy mayor has called for the embattled United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to be kicked out of Israel, and a bipartisan group of Knesset members have signed a petition urging the agency be defunded.
“It’s not surprising that they’re [UNRWA] allowing themselves to not accept, not respect Israeli law here in Jerusalem. They’re building illegal buildings, they have petrol stations in places they’re not allowed to have, and it’s time that the Israeli Government allows us, the Municipality of Jerusalem, to pass a law against UNRWA,” said Deputy Mayor Arieh King. “We expect the Government of Israel to just kick them out of Israel and specifically from Jerusalem,” he added.
King was speaking ahead of a rally outside the agency’s Jerusalem headquarters. The protest came amid reports that Israel’s largest bank froze UNRWA’s account over suspicious financial transfers that the agency had failed to adequately explain.
“UNRWA is the only organization responsible for educating Arabs, for 70 years, in Jerusalem, to hate the Jews, teaching them that there [are no rights] for Jews in the Land of Israel. And it’s not surprising that we have Arabs who graduated from UNRWA schools and joined terror organizations here in Jerusalem. We’re not talking about Gaza, we’re talking about Jerusalem,” said King.
He also criticized UNRWA for inflating the number of Palestinian refugees, noting the agency recognizes as refugees “hundreds of thousands” of Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem with permanent resident status. This status gives Palestinians access to Israeli education, health and social services, and the right to vote in municipal elections, though not national elections.
He stressed that if UNRWA leaves Jerusalem, the municipality could take over the services currently provided by the U.N. agency. “They have all the conditions to live here in Jerusalem like all other Arabs. Most of the Arabs in Jerusalem don’t learn in UNRWA schools. But many do. Israel and Jerusalem can take care of them. It’s time that they will be exactly like any other Arab living in Jerusalem,” King said.
“They get a salary if they work in the municipality or hospitals or legal offices. And [yet] they are being counted as refugees. That’s ridiculous. After more than 50 years of living in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, most of the Arabs were born after UNRWA was founded. So how can they be titled as refugees? They are living where they were born,” he said.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 20 Knesset members has signed a petition calling for UNRWA’s defunding.
According to the petition, “UNRWA’s involvement in activities counterproductive to peace and security, notably on Oct. 7, necessitates a critical reassessment of aid channels to Palestinians.” The lawmakers who signed the petition came from five parties in the governing coalition and two opposition parties.
Likud Knesset member Dan Ilouz, who spearheaded the petition, called for an end to UNRWA’s role.
“The exposure of the fact that UNRWA employees actively participated in the [Hamas’s] heinous [Oct. 7] massacre…led to the freezing of funding to the organization,” he said, adding, “We must turn this freeze into a permanent cessation of UNRWA’s role.”
“Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only does the organization perpetuate the conflict, but it also actively and violently participates in it—an unacceptable reality. We are dealing with an organization that educates to terrorism, collaborates with terrorism and even pays salaries to employees who are essentially terrorists. We must seize the opportunity to ensure it does not continue to do so,” said Ilouz.
Since Oct. 7, the agency has come under fire numerous times, prompting Israel to demand that UNRWA be stripped of its authority in Gaza amid revelations that members of the agency’s staff participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. The U.S. and 14 other countries have suspended funding to the agency.
Israel intelligence proving 12 staffers participated in the massacre, including using UNRWA vehicles and facilities, was leaked to The New York Times. Afterward, The Wall Street Journal reported that one in 10 UNRWA employees in Gaza is either an active member of or has ties to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Reports released by IMPACT-se and U.N. Watch documented UNRWA employees expressing support for the attacks on social media.
IDF soldiers found missiles hidden among UNRWA relief supplies, while sacks belonging to the agency were found to have been used as tunnel linings in Gaza.
Palestinian refugees are the only refugee population with its own dedicated U.N. agency. The rest of the world’s refugees fall under the mandate of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Israeli officials have called for UNRWA to be closed and for Palestinian refugees to be brought under the responsibility of the UNHCR.
UNRWA’s definition of refugees not only includes the original refugees, but also their descendants in perpetuity, including those who have citizenship in other countries. The UNHCR definition does not confer refugee status on descendants.