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Jerusalem Mayor’s Plan To Oust UNRWA Could Face Legal Hurdles
A pupil stands at the entrance of a school run by United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Jerusalem Mayor’s Plan To Oust UNRWA Could Face Legal Hurdles

Amid deepening worries that Palestinian refugees will be without critical services, some analysts see the mayor’s plan as a political stunt

The office of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has announced plans to terminate the services of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), tasked with tending to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The news, however, is being received with a significant degree of apprehension, as some analysts doubt the plan has any teeth.

The mayor’s idea is in line with the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump, including his decision to de-fund UNRWA. The move, in addition to the relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, intended to ramp up pressure on the Palestinian leadership and take certain core and contentious issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the negotiating table.

“The U.S. decision has created a rare opportunity to replace UNRWA’s services,” Barkat conveyed in a statement.  “Jerusalem residents will not be political pawns for the PA’s [Palestinian Authority] dangerous strategy to destroy Israel,” he added soon afterwards on Twitter.

In his initiative, the mayor has rejected the designation of those living in east Jerusalem as “refugees” while insisting that they “are in fact residents of Jerusalem with an Israeli ID card. As such, [they] are entitled to [services] of the State of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu previously made a similar case, accusing UNRWA of falsely inflating the number of people it serves by creating “fictitious refugees.”

Some observers argue that UNRWA’s definition of “refugee” lends credence to the controversial “right to return” of those displaced, along with their descendants, during the 1948 conflict that pushed many Palestinians from their homes. By contrast, critics contend that extending refugee status to the offspring of those dislocated threatens Israel as a Jewish-majority state.

The mayor’s plan to absorb the Palestinians under UNRWA’s care is comprehensive. It stipulates the redistribution of students and medical patients to existing municipal schools and clinics; the expropriation and re-purposing of existing UNRWA structures; and the establishment of improved sanitation services to east Jerusalem residents.

While the plan appears robust in its capacity to transfer key services from UNRWA to municipal entities, questions are being posed regarding its legality.

Yael Ronen, a legal expert, conveyed to The Media Line that “the presence of UNRWA is not a municipal issue,” and expressed skepticism that the proposal could be implemented.

Still others believe the mayor’s proposed initiative is a political stunt that aims to bolster his bid to run for parliament after he exists office following elections later this month.

Liora Sion, an UNRWA expert and political researcher, told The Media Line that “UNRWA has long been a punching bag for politicians because Israelis are wary of international organizations.

“Israel has been playing a double game with UNRWA,” she added, noting that “Prime Minister Netanyahu criticizes the organization publicly while Foreign Minister Netanyahu [who holds both portfolios] seeks to raise funds for it.”

UNRWA released a statement on Friday stressing that the organization “conducts humanitarian operations in conformity with the UN Charter, bilateral and multilateral agreements…and with the cooperation and on the basis of a formal agreement with the State of Israel, which remain in force.”

Given the circumstances, UNRWA has already cut its deficit from “$465 million to just over $60 million,” Chris Gunness, an UNWRA spokesman, revealed to The Media Line.

Despite the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding to the agency, other countries have vowed to step in and fill the financial void. Should UNRWA weather the storm and continue operating at full capacity, Barkat’s plan may come up against resistance, especially if the doomsday scenario of Gaza Strip’s economic collapse materializes.

(Victor Cabrera is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)


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