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Israeli draft law seeks to ban UNRWA in East Jerusalem

If passed, the bill would forbid the UN agency's activities benefiting over 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Shuafat camp
The UN Refugees Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was founded to address the mass displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (FILE/AFP)

A proposed bill calling to ban the work of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, in occupied East Jerusalem has received support from Israel political parties to be put in front of the Knesset. 

The draft bill was presented by Likud party member and former mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who claimed that UNRWA’s work “distances the region from any hope of coexistence… and is harmful to the social fabric of Jerusalem.”

The bill received majority support in a vote on Wednesday, including from Likud’s rival far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, as well as political allies of The New Right, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home parties.

It would now need to be presented to the Knesset and pass through three rounds of votes before becoming law.

The date when the bill would first be taken to the Knesset remains undetermined, although Hebrew news site Kipa reported that it would likely occur in early 2020.

The bill currently calls for a ban of UNRWA's educational and medical activities in Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, where the UN agency runs schools and health centres that serve almost 104,000 Palestinians - some 70 percent of whom are under 30 years old.

The bill also proposes for Israeli authorities to cease using the term “refugee camp” to refer to Shuafat. Shuafat is the only Palestinian refugee camp built in East Jerusalem, established in 1965 when the city was ruled by Jordanian authorities, two years before Israel occupied it following the 1967 war.

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The refugee camp is separated from the Old City of Jerusalem by a military checkpoint and the Israeli separation wall.

Barkat said the proposed law would impose Israeli sovereignty over all areas of Jerusalem in accordance with the Basic Law - the Israeli equivalent to a constitution - which states that the entire city of Jerusalem is Israel's capital.

Going against a two-state solution

This stance flies against longstanding diplomatic calls for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

UNRWA was created following the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 in order to provide services to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcibly displaced by the conflict.

More than 70 years later, the UN agency serves some five million refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries.

UNRWA has long been in Israel's crosshairs, and the administration of US President Donald Trump, a staunch Israel supporter, has dealt a number of severe blows to the international organisation in the past several years.

In 2018, Washington - which had been UNRWA's biggest funder since its inception - halved its contribution and donated only $125mn to the agency, leaving it scrambling to make up for the sudden shortage.

In early 2019, the US cut all funding, saying UNRWA’s business model and fiscal practices were those of an "irredeemably flawed operation".