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Israel advances bill to revoke immunities, privileges of UN refugee agency

May 29, 2024 at 5:39 pm

This picture shows a general view of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) during a meeting, in Jerusalem on 30 June, 2022 [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images]

The Knesset (Israel’s parliament) on Wednesday passed a preliminary reading of a bill to revoke the immunities and privileges granted to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), Anadolu Agency reports.

The bill, which requires three additional readings to become law, is part of what Palestinian, UN and international entities describe as an Israeli campaign to dismantle the UN agency and liquidate the refugee issue.

The bill, known as the United Nations Immunities and Privileges Ordinance was backed in the preliminary reading by 58-6 votes in the 120-seat Knesset, the assembly said in a statement.

“The UN Immunities and Privileges Ordinance, 1947, empowers the Foreign Minister to issue an order stating that the United Nations and its officials will enjoy the benefit of the immunities and the privileges,” reads an explanatory note to the bill.

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“Among the immunities and privileges: Immunity from prosecution; immunity of official archives and offices; exemption or discount on taxes and municipal property taxes; exemption from import or export prohibitions; exemption from income tax and more.”

The bill alleges that UNRWA and its employees contributed to the 7 October Hamas attack and that the agency’s education system supports “terrorism and hatred”. It argues that there is no room for granting the UN agency and its staff the privileges and immunity they receive under the UN order.

Israel has repeatedly equated UNRWA staff with Hamas members in efforts to discredit them, providing no proof of the claims, while lobbying hard to have UNRWA closed as it is the only UN agency to have a specific mandate to look after the basic needs of Palestinian refugees. If the agency no longer exists, argues Israel, then the refugee issue must no longer exist, and the legitimate right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land will be unnecessary. Israel has denied that right of return since the late 1940s, even though its own membership of the UN was made conditional upon Palestinian refugees being allowed to return to their homes and land.

UNRWA, headquartered in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Occupied East Jerusalem, denies Israel’s investigation.

While the UN insists on maintaining UNRWA’s operations, Israel has recently advocated for its replacement by other institutions and persuaded countries, notably the US, to cease funding the agency, leading to severe financial deficits.

UNRWA was established by a UN resolution in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to refugees in its five areas of operation: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel has continued its brutal offensive on Gaza following a Hamas attack on 7 October, 2023, despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire.

More than 36,170 Palestinians have since been killed in Gaza, the vast majority being women and children, and over 81,400 others injured, according to local health authorities.

Nearly eight months into the Israeli war, vast swathes of Gaza lay in ruins amid a crippling blockade of food, clean water and medicine.

Israel stands accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which in its latest rulings has ordered Tel Aviv to immediately halt its operation in Rafah, where over a million Palestinians had sought refuge from the war before it was invaded on May 6.

READ: Borrell confirms continued EU support for UNRWA