Barkat: UNWRA Preventing Growth of Yerushalayim

An Israeli policeman stands looking over the flashpoint Arab village of Issawiya. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Besides perpetuating the permanent refugee status of the descendants of Arabs who fled Israel in 1948, UNWRA has been guilty of preventing development in Yerushalayim, Mayor Nir Barkat told a group Monday – and he has a plan to remove the organization from the city. “We will close the UNWRA schools and allow residents a quality choice in the schools they can send their children to,” he said to a group of reporters. “They will have the same opportunities as 99 percent of Yerushalayim residents.”

In addition to ridding the city of its UNWRA schools, Barkat intends to do away with the organization’s welfare program. “We will switch UNWRA’s welfare programs with the programs that all Yerushalayim residents are eligible for, programs that are designed to lift people out of poverty and help them to recover economically.”

The definition of tens of thousands of Yerushalayim residents as “refugees” has retarded growth in the city, especially in Arab neighborhoods, said Barkat. “We need to stop propagating this refugee status, and start relating to people as residents of the city. UNWRA in this sense has been retarding development of the city. We will remove UNWRA and continue development.”

The United States officially declared Friday that it will no longer fund UNWRA, the United Nations organization set up to deal with Arabs who fled Israel at the establishment of the state.

In a statement Friday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that “the Administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA. When we made a U.S. contribution of $60 million in January, we made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu praised the decision, saying that Israel “supports the American move,” and that the “permanence” of refugee status that UNWRA bestows on the Palestinians “is one of the main problems that prolongs the conflict. It would be preferable to transfer the money to other organizations that will work on behalf of the population” instead of preserving their refugee status.