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Unrwa closing Jerusalem headquarters after Israeli settler arson attacks

Commissioner general calls for investigation, saying premises should be protected under international law
Right-wing Israeli protesters gather with flags and banners outside the West Bank field office of Unrwa in Jerusalem on 20 March 2024.
Right-wing Israeli protesters gather with flags and banners outside the West Bank field office of Unrwa in Jerusalem, on 20 March (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

A group of Israeli settlers on Thursday launched several attacks on the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) in East Jerusalem, setting fire to the perimeter of the building.

According to the Palestinian news outlet Wafa, the settlers burned trees and grass on the building's property, which is located in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

The news outlet reported, citing eyewitnesses, that Unrwa staff members were present at the headquarters, and worked to put out the fire and stop it from spreading. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces reportedly were present at the site but didn't prevent the settlers from starting the fires, according to Wafa.

There were no injuries reported, however, the fire caused extensive damage to the property, according to Unrwa.

Video footage shared on social media shows several fires surrounding the building, with a group of Israelis cheering in the background.

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Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of Unrwa, said that the attack has forced him to shut down the compound, given the ongoing security risk to staff members of the UN agency.

“Our director with the help of other staff had to put out the fire themselves as it took the Israeli fire extinguishers and police a while before they turned up,” said Lazzarini.

"This is an outrageous development. Once again, the lives of UN staff were at serious risk.

"In light of this second appalling incident in less than a week, I have taken the decision to close down our compound until proper security is restored."

The attack comes just two days after a group of settlers attacked the same Unrwa headquarters on Tuesday, and comes after months of protests outside of the building by far-right Israeli settlers.

Lazzarini called for an investigation into the attacks, saying that UN staff, property, and operations "should be protected at all times in line with international law".

"The perpetrators of these attacks must be investigated and those responsible must be held accountable," he said.

"Anything less will set a new dangerous standard."

Israeli settler violence

Since Israel's war in Gaza, which came in response to the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, Israeli forces have killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza and levelled civilian infrastructure in the enclave.

During this time, far-right Israeli settlers have increased attacks on Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Since October, Israel's military has summoned 5,500 settlers who are Israeli army reservists, including some with criminal records of violence against Palestinians, and assigned them to serve in "regional defence" battalions in the West Bank.

Israeli authorities have also distributed 7,000 guns to battalion members and others, including "civilian security squads" established in settlements, according to Haaretz and Israeli rights groups.

The UN's humanitarian office has reported at least 800 Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians since October, which have resulted in either casualties or property damage.

A report from Human Rights Watch last month said that violent settler attacks in the West Bank have displaced Palestinians from 20 communities and have "entirely uprooted at least seven communities since October 7, 2023".

The US and the UK have issued sanctions on several Israeli settlers who have engaged in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, but attacks have continued.

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