UN Palestine refugee agency closes Jerusalem office following arson attacks

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Fowler underlined UNRWA’s mandate to provide services to Palestine refugees, which includes healthcare, education and social support.

Two arson attacks and growing protests forced the UN Palestine refugee agency UNRWA to temporarily close its office in East Jerusalem this week, but its vital work will continue as war rages in Gaza and violence rises in the West Bank, Senior Communications Manager Jonathan Fowler told UN News on Friday.

For roughly two months, demonstrations have been held outside the East Jerusalem compound, which is in an area where many Israeli settlements are located.

The situation came to a head on Thursday evening when Israeli residents lit fires at two locations on the perimeter of the grounds. Fowler was among the small number of staff in the office at the time.

Smoke and stones

“The fire alarm was ringing, and we looked out of the window, and I saw smoke kind of billowing over the top of the building,” he said, speaking from Amman, Jordan after leaving Jerusalem on Thursday night.

Colleagues who went to douse the fire, to prevent it from spreading, were “treated to stone throwing by groups of youths who had gathered on the street opposite.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the compound, another fire had been lit at a fence next to a petrol station for UNRWA vehicles.

“If that fire had reached the gas station, I dread to think what would have happened to the houses, the apartment blocks that live right nearby. We would have been in a situation of an absolute disaster.”

From fiery rhetoric to ‘real flames’

Both UN Secretary-General António Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini condemned the attack, which followed a protest just days before that turned violent.

“People were gathering, and they were starting to get wooden sticks and stones, and there was some sort of bash against the gate,” Fowler said, recalling the demonstration on Tuesday. “And the police were just kind of there in the background.”

Although an investigation into the fires is underway, he pointed to the wider issue of increased tension around UNRWA’s work following the war in Gaza.

“There's a sense that this kind of behaviour has been encouraged, and encouraged, and encouraged by inflammatory rhetoric,” he said. “So, we go from inflammatory rhetoric to real flames in the space of a few days.”

‘A territory of intimidation’

Fowler said the protests against UNRWA have been “called by different organisations and individuals,” including one of Jerusalem’s deputy mayors, and there has been no noticeable increased police presence despite the repeated demonstrations.

While upholding the right to freedom of expression, “even if we don't agree with the contents of what is shouted at us”, he said things have “sort of moved into a territory of intimidation.”

Demonstrators have blocked the gates to the UN compound, and in one instance surrounded the car of a staff member while brandishing toy weapons. Shuttle buses transporting UN staff were slapped on the sides and spat at, and the people onboard filmed.

Undermined and unprotected

So far, staff have not faced any incidents of intimidation after working hours. “We have to hope sincerely that we don't get to that kind of level,” he said.

Fowler underscored that it is incumbent on Israel, as the occupying power, to ensure the proper protection of UN facilities.

“We feel this is not happening,” he said. “It's clear from the evidence, and it's part of the context of a much wider campaign against UNRWA, basically to undermine the agency; things like the use of lawfare to try to argue that legally we have no right to be in our compounds.”

‘Not going anywhere’

Although the East Jerusalem premises are closed for the time being, he insisted that staff will not be deterred from carrying out their work. They have made a “COVID-like” pivot, where people work from home or other locations.

“It complicates our functioning at a time when of course, we should be fully focussed on the unprecedented levels of violence in the West Bank and, it goes without saying, the enormous, unprecedented level of humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.”

Fowler underlined UNRWA’s mandate, established nearly 75 years ago by the UN General Assembly, to provide services to Palestine refugees, which includes healthcare, education and social support.

“We're proud of our work. Many of us are deeply passionate about our work,” he said.

“We do it because we have a mandate from the United Nations system to do something. Until such time as that mandate no longer exists, we're not going anywhere, whatever anybody might like to say.”

He added that in response to the hostilities against UNRWA there have been a number of “robust public statements” from donors to the agency, saying “enough is enough.”

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