10 May 2024, 11:35

UN agency says closing east Jerusalem HQ after arson by 'Israeli extremists'

 JERUSALEM, May 10, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Thursday it was temporarily shuttering its east Jerusalem headquarters after "Israeli extremists" set fire to the perimeter following weeks of repeated attacks.

"This evening, Israeli residents set fire twice to the perimeter of the UNRWA headquarters in occupied east Jerusalem," agency chief Philippe Lazzarini said on X, formerly Twitter, lamenting that it was the second attack on the compound in a matter of days.

He described how "a crowd accompanied by armed men were witnessed outside the compound chanting 'Burn down the United Nations'."

UNRWA and staff from other UN agencies at the time were on the compound, which has on its grounds petrol and diesel stations for a fleet of UN cars.

"While there were no casualties among our staff, the fire caused extensive damage to the outdoor areas," Lazzarini said, adding that UNRWA staff had put out the fire themselves.

The attack came after two months of "Israeli extremists staging protests outside the UNRWA compound", he said, adding that one protest earlier this week "became violent when demonstrators threw stones at UN staff and at the buildings of the compound".

Thursday's arson attempts marked "an outrageous development", Lazzarini said. "Once again, the lives of UN staff were at a 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 UNRWA chief lamented that "over the past months, UN staff have regularly been subjected to harassment and intimidation".

"Our compound has been seriously vandalised and damaged. On several occasions, Israeli extremists threatened our staff with guns."

- 'Israeli targeting of UNRWA' -

The Palestinian Authority condemned the arson attack and urged the international community to take "strict measures" against Israeli "militias".

Jordan also decried the attack, calling for measures to force Israel to "assume its responsibility as the occupying power in Jerusalem" and put an end to the harassment, according to the official news agency Petra.

Qatar's foreign ministry slammed the "systematic Israeli targeting of UNRWA", maintaining it aimed "to liquidate it and deprive millions of Palestinians of its necessary services".

Saudi Arabia also condemned the attack.

UNRWA, which coordinates nearly all aid to Gaza, has been in crisis since January, when Israel accused about a dozen of its 13,000 Gaza employees of being involved in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

This led many donor nations, including its top donor the United States, to abruptly suspend funding to the agency, threatening its efforts to deliver desperately needed aid in Gaza, although several have since resumed payments.

An independent review group of UNRWA, led by French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna, found some "neutrality-related issues" but said Israel had yet to provide evidence for its chief allegations.

Created in 1949, the agency employs around 30,000 people in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.


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