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Netanyahu calls for UNRWA's dismantlement

June 11, 2017 7:00 P.M. (Updated: June 19, 2017 2:40 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the dismantlement of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) -- the UN agency responsible for providing services to more than five million Palestinian refugees across the occupied Palestinian territory and the Middle East.

During the Israeli security cabinet’s weekly meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu argued against the continued existence of a UN entity focusing specifically on the needs of Palestinian refugees, adding that “the time has come to disband UNRWA and integrate it into the UNHCR” -- the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“UNRWA, to a large degree, by its very existence, perpetuates -- and does not solve -- the Palestinian refugee problem,” the Israeli head of state added.

Netanyahu also accused UNRWA of “considerable incitement against Israel,” without elaborating further. He went on to add that, during US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s three-day visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, “I told her that the time has come for the UN to reconsider the continued existence of UNRWA.”

Netanyahu also brought up the recent discovery of a tunnel partially built under an UNRWA school in the besieged Gaza Strip during Sunday’s meeting, accusing Hamas of “using schoolchildren as human shields,” and added that the Israeli government was planning to file a complaint against Hamas at the UN Security Council.

While UNRWA strongly denounced the presence of the tunnel under UN facilities as putting “beneficiaries and staff at risk and undermin(ing) the ability of UN staff to provide assistance to Palestine refugees in safety and security,” Hamas, the de facto ruling party in Gaza, denied that it had any involvement with the tunnel.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness responded to Netanyahu’s comments by noting that UNRWA’s fate was decided only by the UN General Assembly, which extended the agency’s mandate by three years in December “by a large majority.”

Gunness added that the issue of Palestinian refugees -- who number an estimated 6.5 million according to legal NGO BADIL -- could only be resolved through a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian refugee conflict, instead of shuttering an aid agency catering to their humanitarian needs.

“The situation of Palestine refugees needs to be resolved as part of a political resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” Gunness added. “It is time for political action to resolve this long-standing crisis."

Meanwhile, UNRWA spokesman in Gaza Adnan Abu Hasna said in an interview with Israel Radio that, should UNRWA cease providing services in the besieged coastal enclave, where 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance, "two million people will turn into Islamic State supporters,” Reuters reported.

While UNRWA has been the target of Palestinian criticism on a number of occasions, Palestinian refugees, notably in the occupied Palestinian territory, see the preservation of their status as refugees as maintaining their claim to their right of return to the villages in historic Palestine from which their ancestors fled during the creation of the state of Israel.

Israel has long criticized the UN, claiming that it has been unfairly targeted by the international body over the state's repeated breaches of international law, particularly its illegal settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territory.
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