The Israeli political movement to expel UNRWA from Jerusalem

UN refugee agency for Palestine
9 min read
24 April, 2024

Earlier this year, several Western countries froze their funding to UNRWA after Israel accused 12 of its employees of participating in the 7 October attacks. 

The accusations sparked international uproar and reignited a longstanding campaign within Israel to expel UNRWA from Jerusalem.

While attempts to “evict” UNRWA’s Jerusalem offices are not new, the campaign is now bolstered at both the governmental and grassroots levels. 

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is currently debating a bill to ban UNRWA from operating in occupied East Jerusalem.

It passed its first preliminary reading in February and requires three more readings before becoming law. Israeli politicians are also joining protests demanding UNRWA’s eviction from its West Bank field office, which is located in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

'Evicting' UNRWA: An election slogan

The ongoing campaign to expel UNRWA from East Jerusalem seems to be the brainchild of Jerusalem deputy mayor, Arieh King.

On 14 January, Mr King posted on his X account a letter dated 11 January, claiming to provide evidence that UNRWA’s headquarters were “built on property owned by the State of Israel”. The letter was intended for Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir.

A second letter, posted by King on his social media on 26 January but dated 11 January, was sent to the Israel Land Authority (ILA), with the same allegations.

On 15 January, Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom reported that the ILA had sent a letter to UNRWA demanding it vacate the premises of its vocational training center in Qalandia, and pay a NIS 17 million (USD 4.6 million) usage fee.

The ILA is the governmental body responsible for managing all land in Israel owned by the state or public bodies. More than 93% of all land in Israel is managed by the ILA.

The New Arab (TNA) contacted the ILA regarding its involvement in this campaign. No reply was received at the time of publication.

The timing of Mr King’s call to expel UNRWA from East Jerusalem coincided with the final stages of his campaign for re-election as deputy mayor for Jerusalem.

King headed the United List, represented on the ballot by the letter ק (Hebrew for K), and affiliated with Jewish Power, the party of Minister Ben-Gvir. King went on to win his re-election bid.

A Facebook post advocating to “kick UNRWA out of Jerusalem” by voting for Arieh King’s United list at the Jerusalem municipal elections [Meta/TNA/fair use]
A Facebook post advocating to 'kick UNRWA out of Jerusalem' by voting for Arieh King’s United List at the Jerusalem municipal elections. [Meta/TNA/fair use]

TNA asked King whether his re-election campaign had any bearing on the timing of his call to evict UNRWA.

“If this was right, then why should I have a demonstration next week?” King asked.

“I have been fighting against UNRWA since 2001. [...] My campaign was easier because people knew this is not just for an election campaign, because they knew I have been fighting against [UNRWA] for a few years already,” he added.

As part of his drive to get re-elected, King organised multiple demonstrations in front of UNRWA’s compound in East Jerusalem, calling in some instances to put UNRWA’s office under siege.

These protests have continued, even after the election, and have been led by Tsav 9 (Order 9) and Im Tirtzu. Tsav 9 is an Israeli movement formed in December 2023 to block humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. Im Tirtzu is the “largest Zionist movement in Israel”, according to its website.

Protesters have threatened UNRWA staff during their demonstrations and repeated chants equating UNRWA with Hamas.

They have also vandalised the premises - affixing posters demanding UNRWA’s expulsion and smearing red paint outside the entrance, insinuating UNRWA has blood on its hands. 

Several Israeli politicians have participated in the protests including King, Boaz Bismuth, a Knesset member with Netanyahu’s Likud party and one of the promoters of the bill to ban UNRWA, and former Foreign Ministry official Noga Arbell.

“UNRWA was proven to be a terrorist-supporting organisation. At least 12 of the workers were active in the massacre of the 7th of October,” Matan, a protester with Im Tirtzu who did not want his full name used, told TNA.

On 22 April, a report commissioned by the UN found that Israeli authorities failed to provide any supporting evidence to back the claim that UNRWA’s employees had ties with Hamas.

“We believe that eventually, the government will understand that there is no possibility [to stay]. That after what happened on 7th of October, [UNRWA] can work from Ramallah, they can work from Gaza, no problem, but they do not work from Jerusalem, the capital of Israel,” Matan added. 

Israel claims the entire city of Jerusalem (including the eastern portion it occupied in 1967) as its capital. International law considers East Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territory and nearly all countries - barring four - that have diplomatic relations with Israel maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv to reflect this status.

Similar to their protests blocking aid to Gaza, Tsav 9 and Im Tirtzu are using the demonstrations at UNRWA’s compound as a platform to fundraise for their activities.

TNA identified a new crowdfunding campaign by Im Tirtzu that has raised NIS 30,409 (USD 8,060) at the time of publication.

A Tsav 9 fundraiser, which TNA previously identified in March, was also reshared on social media to support the UNRWA demonstrations. It has raised NIS 284,470 (USD 75,400) in total.

A screenshot of posts on Tsav 9’s telegram channel, showing a fundraising link next to a video of two individuals from the group following a UNRWA employee around the Sheikh Jarrah compound [Tsav 9/fair use]
A screenshot of posts on Tsav 9’s telegram channel, showing a fundraising link next to a video of two individuals from the group following a UNRWA employee around the Sheikh Jarrah compound. [Tsav 9/fair use]

UNRWA's history in Jerusalem

UNRWA, for its part, denies the allegations made by King and the ILA.

According to Jonathan Fowler, senior communications manager at UNRWA, the East Jerusalem office was leased from Jordan in 1952.

As for the vocational training center in Qalandia, Fowler said that “in 1951, UNRWA was granted exclusive rights to use the land by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to provide technical training for Palestine refugees, until such time as the training is terminated or UNRWA ceases to function”.

TNA contacted the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Embassy of Jordan in Tel Aviv to confirm. No reply was received at the time of publication.

In both instances, "UNRWA has remained in exclusive possession [...] without interruption until 1967 and continuously thereafter since Israel has occupied the territory," Fowler told TNA.

“We have not received any challenges to our possession [...] from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he added.

A sign at a protest in front of UNRWA's headquarters in East Jerusalem
A sign at a protest in front of UNRWA's headquarters in East Jerusalem. [TNA/Jessica Buxbaum]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the main interlocutor of UNRWA in Israel. This is defined in the so-called Comay-Michelmore agreement between the two.

The agreement was concluded on 14 June 1967, a few days after the end of the Six-Day War.

In the aftermath of the conflict, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, bringing under its control a sizable Palestinian refugee population, whose basic needs were provided for by UNRWA prior to the military occupation.

However, according to Baruch Spiegel, former deputy head of the Israeli Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel “had no intention” of taking over responsibility of providing for the needs of this population.

Under international humanitarian law, Israel is required, as the occupying power, to make sure that the basic needs of the occupied population, such as food and water, are met.

Live Story

Instead, Israel “decided to institutionalise its relationship with the U.N. agency [...and] signed a formal agreement establishing recognition by the State of Israel of UNRWA's activity in the West Bank and Gaza,” according to Spiegel.

Some members of the Knesset have demanded that Israel withdraws from this 1967 agreement.

TNA asked Fowler what measures UNRWA was taking against the campaign to expel it from East Jerusalem.

“It is difficult to get into speculation [about] what happens,” said Fowler. “We are not in a situation where I would want to comment on the likelihood or not of a law being passed. But the point is that we have an agreement. We have a United Nations mandate, that's kind of it for us,” he added.

TNA contacted the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask whether it has been in conversation with UNRWA about the measures to expel it from East Jerusalem. The ministry declined to comment.

UNRWA is irreplaceable 

In place of UNRWA, King suggested that the Israeli government would provide for the needs of Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem.

“Every service that they give, or that they're presenting themselves as giving, is being given by the Israeli government in Jerusalem,” he said.

In reality, many areas where Palestinian refugees live in Jerusalem, such as Kafr Aqab and the Shu’afat refugee camp, are neglected by the municipality.

These areas are governed by Israel, but separated from Jerusalem by the separation wall.

Shahed Alqam is a Palestinian refugee whose family was forced to move to Shu’afat refugee camp in 1965. “We feel that there is a fierce attack on the agency, be it from the US or from Israel,” he told TNA.

According to him, a lot of UNRWA services have been slashed, especially since 7 October.

A protest in front of UNRWA's headquarters in East Jerusalem
Protesters have threatened UNRWA staff during their demonstrations and repeated chants equating UNRWA with Hamas. [TNA/Jessica Buxbaum]

“For a while now, we go to the clinic and there are no drugs, because they have been blocked from arriving. As for the teachers, they work on temporary contracts that get renewed every month,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, told TNA it cannot take over if the UN agency is eliminated. The PA cannot afford to absorb UNRWA’s staff or beneficiaries due to the authority’s severe budget crisis spurred by Israel’s refusal to transfer tax revenues collected from Palestinians.

Dr Lex Takkenberg, former Chief of the Ethics Office at UNRWA, used to work at UNRWA’s West Bank office in East Jerusalem.

“Israel has already [...] made UNRWA operations in the West Bank particularly difficult,” he said.

Takkenberg suggested that the campaign to push UNRWA out of Jerusalem is a clear attempt by Israel to continue its practice of taking over East Jerusalem.

“UNRWA is a symbol for the unresolved refugee issue and the fact that the right of return remains unfulfilled,” Takkenberg told TNA.

“The UN continues to resist the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel. So, if UNRWA would give up that compound, that is further giving into the illegal Israeli practices since 1967.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum

Anas Ambri is a researcher at The New Arab Investigative Unit.

Follow him on Twitter: @AnasAmbri