Barkat: There's no such thing as a 'refugee' in Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s outgoing mayor urges international community to consider his proposal to end the local operations of UNRWA.

Ben Ariel ,

Nir Barkat
Nir Barkat
Hillel Maeir/TPS

Jerusalem’s outgoing mayor Nir Barkat on Sunday urged the international community to consider his proposal to end the local operations of UNRWA, the UN agency for “Palestinian refugees”.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Barkat, who last week unveiled a plan to remove UNRWA from the Israeli capital, said there is “no such thing” as a refugee in the city.

Barkat told the news agency he was inspired to make his proposal after the US cut off $300 million in funding to the agency last month.

Barkat accused UNRWA schools of using textbooks that promote anti-Israel incitement, and said Israel can provide much better education and health care services to Palestinians who rely on the agency. The US funding cuts will only widen those gaps, he said.

“I look at all of my residents as residents. There’s no such thing as residents that live in the city of Jerusalem that are defined as refugees,” he explained to AP. “We will treat them like any other residents in the city and provide the best services we can.”

Barkat encouraged the UN and others to consider his proposal with “an open mind.”

He said that during his term he has made great strides toward improving education and other services in eastern Jerusalem, noting the UNRWA crisis is another “opportunity” to serve Palestinian Arabs.

The Jerusalem mayor accused the Palestinian Arabs and UNRWA of forcing “refugees” to suffer in poor conditions while turning them into “a negotiating chip in a future potential deal.”

Barkat’s plan would remove UNRWA from eastern Jerusalem and replace the services it provides with municipal services.

In his announcement of the plan last week, Barkat said it would “put an end to the lie of the 'Palestinian refugee problem' and the attempts at creating a false sovereignty within a sovereignty.”

Barkat said that under his plan all UNRWA schools in eastern Jerusalem will be closed by the end of the current school year. Health centers will likewise be shut down.

The municipality will also lobby Israeli political leaders and press them to exercise their "authority to remove UNRWA (headquarters) from Israel's sovereign territory" in Jerusalem.

On Friday, UNRWA expressed concern over Barkat’s plan, saying it was "determined to continue to carrying out" its services in eastern Jerusalem.

Created in 1949, UNRWA supplies aid to more than three million of the five million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and territories assigned to the Palestinian Authority.

However, it is also notorious for its anti-Israel activities. During the 2014 counterterrorism Operation Protective Edge, Hamas rockets were discovered inside a school building run by UNRWA.

Likewise, a booby-trapped UNRWA clinic was detonated, killing three IDF soldiers. Aside from the massive amounts of explosives hidden in the walls of the clinic, it was revealed that it stood on top of dozens of terror tunnels, showing how UNRWA is closely embedded with Hamas.

In a more recent incident, the director of UNRWA operations in Gaza expressed his support for the anti-Israel marches along the Israel-Gaza border and pledged that the organization’s medical centers will provide care for “Palestinian refugees” who might sustain injuries during them.

Since the US announced it would stop its funding to UNRWA, the agency has received pledges of $118 million from donor countries in a bid to help it overcome a crisis triggered by the US cut.