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Israeli protesters hold signs outside UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem demanding its expulsion, February 5, 2024


Mostafa al-Kharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images

Feature Story

As UNRWA Shutters Its Jerusalem Office under Intensifying Israeli Pressure, Palestinians Reflect on UNRWA’s Role


After trying to link UNRWA staff to the October 7, 2023, attacks on Israel without providing any credible evidence, Israel has protected settlers who set fire to the East Jerusalem office and is in the process of passing legislation to label UNRWA a terrorist organization and attempting to expel it from the city. We spoke with various Palestinian Jerusalemites about Israel’s campaign to terminate the decades-old UN agency and its potential impact on the community.

Shortly after October 7, 2023, Israel provided all donors to the decades-old UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) with a dossier claiming that 12 of its 13,000 employees in Gaza participated in the Hamas al-Aqsa Flood operation against Israel that day. Little documentation and less credible evidence was provided. The Israelis later reduced the number to seven and claimed that there was irrefutable proof of their participation in the atrocities. UNRWA hurriedly dismissed 9 of the 12 employees without even talking to them.

These accusations prompted 16 countries to pause around $450 million in funding, including the three top donors—the US, Germany, and the EU—throwing the donor-dependent agency into a crisis. Together with Sweden, these four top donors contributed 61.4 percent of the agency’s funding in 2022.1

Israeli officials began to loudly proclaim that their war on Gaza could not be won unless UNRWA was disbanded. The prevailing Israeli thinking on UNRWA was expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2018 as follows: “UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, and perpetuates also the narrative of the so-called right of return, whose goal is the elimination of Israel. For these reasons, UNRWA should be shut down.”2

The United Nations (UN) Secretary General appointed an independent commission to look into the matter and make recommendations. Israel refused to provide the commission with any evidence, and while the final report presented to the Secretary General in April included some recommendations, the conclusions of the investigation exonerated the UNRWA leadership. Most countries have since renewed their funding to the agency except for the US and the UK.3

Some Israelis apparently were not satisfied, and the incitement campaign continued and was often led and accelerated by the Israeli minister of national security, the ultranationalist anti-Arab Itamar Ben-Gvir (of the Otzma Yehudit or Jewish Power party). In East Jerusalem, this incitement was fueled and instigated locally by one of the deputy mayors of the city, Aryeh King. King spearheaded demonstrations at the agency’s East Jerusalem headquarters, such as the one captured in the video below, which took place shortly after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down its first ruling on South Africa’s genocide case against Israel on January 26, 2024.

Short Take The Legal and Institutional Complexities of What It Means to Be a Palestine Refugee

There are 5.9 million registered Palestinian refugees with the UNRWA, and they continue to have a unique status under international law.

Jerusalem deputy mayor Aryeh King led a vitriolic demonstration against UNRWA in East Jerusalem right after the ICJ issued its first decision in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in January 2024.


Jerusalem Story Team

This incitement appears to have given a green light to some radicals in Jerusalem to attempt to burn down the UNRWA headquarters in East Jerusalem by setting the perimeter of the UNRWA compound on fire twice on May 9, 2024, after a week when the protests turned violent.4 A senior UNRWA official who spoke to Jerusalem Story on condition of anonymity said that CCTV cameras at the headquarters filmed the attackers and also captured Israeli police doing nothing about the attempted arson. As a result, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philp Lazzarini decided to temporarily close the East Jerusalem headquarters “until security is restored”5 and move operations to Amman and Ramallah, among other locations.6

Adam Boulokos shares a video of arson at UNRWA headquarters in East Jerusalem, May 10, 2024

UNRWA Affairs Director in the West Bank Adam Bouloukos shares a video of a fire at the agency’s headquarters in East Jerusalem, after the building’s perimeter was set ablaze by Israelis hoping for the agency’s expulsion on May 10, 2024. The attack came after two months of Israeli extremists staging protests outside the UNRWA compound.


Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

UNRWA director in the West Bank Adam Bouloukos views the effects of arson by Israeli settlers at UNRWA headquarters in East Jerusalem, May 10, 2024.

UNRWA Affairs Director in the West Bank Adam Bouloukos visits the agency’s headquarters in East Jerusalem and views the effects of arson by Israeli settlers, May 10, 2024.


Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Legal Measures

Some of the more radical members of the Israeli Knesset decided to take matters into their own hands and submitted two resolutions in May, both of which passed in the first reading. The first considers the URNWA a terrorist organization and the second permits Israelis to sue for damages to the UN agency, which is normally protected by international treaties. According to the Jerusalem Post, “If the bill passes the final reading, it will mean that the Anti-Terrorism Law will also apply to UNRWA. Israel will subsequently cease all ties with the agency, and the organization’s assets in Israeli territory will be closed.”7

It is not clear if the Netanyahu administration plans to push ahead with those resolutions, but the escalation has caused further concern among UNRWA leadership, staff, and the recipients of their services, especially in Jerusalem where Israel has total direct control over the lives of people under its rule. The Israeli action has made normal operations difficult for UNRWA, but the organization continues to provides badly needed services both in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza.

In a subsequent development, on May 26, the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) ordered the agency to vacate its East Jerusalem offices within 30 days and return the state land to the ILA.8

The View from the Old City

The story of UNRWA in Jerusalem is one of a city, of a people, of suffering, and of an ongoing historical tragedy, and not just a story of material or moral aid.

Three Palestinians who lived through the 1948 and 1967 wars recently met by chance in a shop in the Khan Zeit market. Normally that particular market is a place of brisk commercial activity, but on June 3, 2024, the day the three men met (one of whom was author Khalil Assali), it was empty of shoppers. Not even a single passerby walked through the alleys in the early afternoon, which is a clear sign that Jerusalem is witnessing an economic, social, and political disaster.

One of the three tried to make small talk. “Did you hear that Israel will close the UNRWA office in Sheikh Jarrah?” Another asked what would happen to the coveted UNRWA cards that Palestinian refugees carry, which entitle them to humanitarian aid. The third man answered: “We don’t know, let’s wait and see. It seems that Israel has lost its mind, and its actions herald a disaster. May God cover and protect our children from what is to come.”

“It seems that Israel has lost its mind.”

Palestinian Jerusalemite

All three of these men are from well-known Jerusalemite families who live in Jerusalem and not in any of the camps overseen by UNRWA. The two refugee camps in the Jerusalem area are the Shu‘fat camp east of Jerusalem and the Qalandiya camp north of the city; only Shu‘fat lies fully within the Israeli-imposed municipal boundaries of the city; Qalandiya straddles land that is both East Jerusalem and Area C (i.e., outside the municipal boundaries in the rest of the West Bank). They are a small part of the 19 Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and six in Gaza run by UNRWA.9

Saleh Mortaza, a 75-year-old resident of the al-Swaneh district and one of the trio, was on his way to al-Aqsa Mosque to perform the noon prayer and recited a beautiful hadith before telling the other two: “Yes, I have an UNRWA card, and I am proud to have this card. During the Nakba, we were displaced from our home in Jerusalem’s Upper Baq‘a, and immediately overnight we became refugees in our own city. For this reason, we needed the help of the agency that gave us the ration cards, those cards known as kart al-mo‘an [the provision card] to get some food items, because we lost everything. My grandmother told me that she remained for 40 days without food after being kicked out of her home in West Jerusalem and that during this period she lived on dry cakes and tea.”10

After she received her UNRWA card, he added, his grandmother used to go to the Bab al-Asbat square at the entrance of the al-Haram al-Sharif to get her rations: rice, sugar, flour, ghee, and tins of canned meat.

For him, the UNRWA card is a testimony of the right to return, and that is why he and his friends are keen to pass the card to their children, who are passing it on to their children now.

Those families who kept those cards do not receive services from UNRWA anymore, ever since the agency stopped providing food support years ago. Israel removed the UNRWA warehouses that used to be located in Bab al-Asbat square, but allowed the clinic to remain in the Old City’s Indian corner (Zawiyat al-Hindiyya), just inside Bab al-Zahra. The clinic continues to provide treatment and dispense medicine to refugees and the city’s residents, who are not insured by the Israeli national health service.

UNRWA offices, Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, January 30, 2024

UNRWA offices in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, January 30, 2024


Saeed Qaq/Anadolu via Getty Images

An UNRWA health center in Jerusalem

Jerusalem Health Center, Jerusalem, December 10, 2017


© 2017 UNRWA Photo by Marwan Baghdadi

Shu‘fat Refugee Camp Relies on UNRWA Services

The situation in the crowded Shu‘fat refugee camp is completely different. The refugees living there are much more dependent on UNRWA services, especially its medical and educational provision.

A journalist from the Shu‘fat refugee camp, Muhammad Abed Rabbo, told Jerusalem Story that closing the UN agency in Jerusalem will hurt the thousands of refugees living in the camp, many of whom receive education, health care, and social services from the agency.11

“The majority of its 70,000 residents sought refuge in the camp after the June 1967 War, and most of them are originally either from Lydda, Ramla, and Jaffa, or from cities and towns and villages in the West Bank, especially from the Hebron area,” he told Jerusalem Story.

Muhammad moved out of Shu‘fat refugee camp, but he still has family there. He observed that Israel violated UNRWA’s mandate a long time ago when the Jerusalem municipality, under the protection of the police, began a wide demolition campaign inside the camp. In addition to the home demolitions, Israel built the Separation Wall, which severed the camp from the rest of Jerusalem. And then it established what was initially termed a “temporary checkpoint” but which turned into a permanent controlled crossing point, the only access point in and out of the camp. Thousands of Palestinians from the Shu‘fat refugee camp are daily subjected to an unnecessary and thorough inspection when leaving the camp to access their own city. Through these measures, Israel exerts control over the camp.

A classroom in an UNRWA school in Shu‘fat refugee camp

A classroom in an UNRWA school in Shu‘fat refugee camp


© 2020 UNRWA Archive Photographer Unknown

Students in an UNRWA school in Shu‘fat in a celebratory mood

Students in an UNRWA school in Shu‘fat in a celebratory mood


© 2022 UNRWA Photo by Kazem Abu-Khalaf

Palestinian children play at an UNRWA school in Silwan, Jerusalem, January 30, 2024.

Boisterous Palestinian children play at an UNRWA school in Silwan, East Jerusalem, January 30, 2024.


Saeed Qaq/Anadolu via Getty Images

Muhammad thinks that the closure of the East Jerusalem headquarters will end UNRWA’s role in the city on all levels. He believes that Israel is working at an accelerated pace to change Jerusalem as a whole to be more Jewish and less tolerant of Palestinians; it does not recognize their rights, including the right of return.

UNRWA Funding and Donor Conflict

Talal Abu Afifeh, an author and writer who continues to live in the Shu‘fat refugee camp, told Jerusalem Story that Israel, with US complicity, is acting contrary to the entire world including its close allies in Europe, which continue to finance UNRWA. “Israel is hoping that by shutting down UNRWA it can get rid of the Palestinian cause, which is deeply rooted in international humanitarian laws. Despite all Israeli efforts, our people’s right to return to their homes will be implemented no matter how long it takes,” he asserted confidently.12

“Israel is hoping that by shutting down UNRWA it can get rid of the Palestinian cause.”

Talal Abu Afifeh

Israeli lawyer and Jerusalem peace activist Daniel Seidemann seems to agree. He told Jerusalem Story that Israeli officials are doubling down on the current policies that consider Jerusalem to be entirely an Israeli city, where international law does not apply. “As a result of this policy, thousands of Palestinians in the Shu‘fat refugee camp will be denied services by Israel.” He called Israel’s effort a “childish fantasy,” that dismantling the UNWRA would solve the issue of the refugees and make the Nakba go away.13

UNRWA offices, Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, January 30, 2024

UNRWA offices in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, January 30, 2024. Photos from UNRWA’s vast historic collection of Palestine refugees over the years decorate the walls.


Saeed Qaq/Anadolu via Getty Images

Dimitri Diliani, a Jerusalem political activist, told Jerusalem Story that the Israeli government’s recent order for UNRWA to vacate its headquarters in East Jerusalem within 30 days, issued by Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, highlights a coordinated effort to undermine this independent international humanitarian agency for political reasons.14 “For the past two months, groups of Israeli government supporters have staged regular demonstrations outside the UNRWA compound in Jerusalem, engaging in criminal activities such as throwing stones at staff and buildings and setting fire to property.”15

An UNRWA official who requested anonymity confirmed to Jerusalem Story the apathy of the Israeli police. Footage recorded by UNRWA CCTV cameras reveals that these crimes were carried out under the protection of the Israeli armed forces, with many demonstrators openly carrying machine guns and other weapons, the senior UNRWA official told Jerusalem Story.16

The Israeli police were acting under the orders of Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted for incitement to racism in 2007.

Photo Girls Attend UNRWA School in Shu‘fat Refugee Camp

A peek into a 1980s UNRWA school for girls in Shu‘fat refugee camp

An UNRWA official who requested anonymity confirmed to Jerusalem Story the apathy of the Israeli police.

Dimitri, however, expects that Israel’s effort to shut down UNRWA in Jerusalem will fail badly. “Given UNRWA’s mandate from the UN General Assembly since 1949, it is unlikely that the agency will comply with the eviction order. This situation should prompt legal discussions on the legitimacy of the Israel Lands Authority’s claims to Palestinian properties that have been illegitimately confiscated and controlled since 1948.”

UNRWA’s Chief of Staff Ben Majekodunmi said in a webinar organized by the Amman-based ARDD think tank that the UNRWA headquarters is Jordanian public property.17 “The land on which UNRWA’s headquarters in East Jerusalem was built in the 1950s was donated by Jordan, which was in charge of the area as part of the 1949 armistice agreement. UNRWA pays annually a symbolic rent fee to Jordan for the use of this land for its headquarters,” he said. Israeli claims that as an occupying power, it is responsible for all public land including protected tenant law will not fly in Israeli law, nor will they be accepted by the world community. Nevertheless, UNRWA has had to temporarily shut down its headquarters in Jerusalem due to safety concerns for its staff. It has yet to resume full operations.

Since October 7, 2023, Israel has also revoked travel permits for some 450 Palestinian staffers of UNRWA who live in other parts of the West Bank and travel to Jerusalem for work, according to Majekodunmi.

Gershon Baskin, Israeli columnist and Middle East director of the International Communities’ Organization (an NGO that works in conflict zones with failed peace processes), called the Knesset decision “a political blow” against the UN agency but a possibly counterproductive political move. “Specifically because of the importance of Jerusalem and its symbolism in the conflict, if Israel prevents UNRWA from working in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, then someone else needs to replace its functions. That should be the government of the state of Palestine,” he argued.18 Will Israel allow that?



Which Countries Have Cut Funding to UNRWA, and Why?” Al Jazeera, January 28, 2024; United Nations, “Independent Review Panel Releases Final Report on UNRWA,” UN News, April 22, 2024.


TOI Staff, “Netanyahu Wants UNRWA Gradually Shut Down, Backs US Cuts,” Times of Israel, January 7, 2018.


Lazzarini, “This evening.”


Kathryn Armstrong, “UNRWA Closes East Jerusalem Office after Attacks,” BBC News, May 9, 2024.


Mathilda Heller, “Knesset Passes Preliminary Bill Designating UNRWA Terrorist Organization,” Jerusalem Post, May 29, 2024.


Kalandia Camp,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, accessed June 14, 2024.


Saleh Mortaza, interview by the authors, June 3, 2024. All subsequent quotes from Mortaza are from this interview.


Muhammad Abed Rabbo, interview by the authors, June 2, 2024. All subsequent quotes from Abed Rabbo are from this interview.


Talal Abu Afifeh, interview by the authors, June 2, 2024.


Daniel Seidemann, interview by the authors, June 2, 2024.


Dimitri Diliani, interview by the authors, June 2, 2024. All subsequent quotes from Diliani are taken from this interview.


UNRWA official, interview by the authors, May 13, 2024.


Online Seminar: UNRWA Under Attack: Existential Challenges and Their Implications,” Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, June 3, 2024.


Gershon Baskin, interview by the authors, June 2, 2024.

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