Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday at his office in Jerusalem. He called for the closing of UNRWA, the United Nations’ agency dealing with Palestinian refugees. Photo by Ariel Schalit/pool/EPA
June 11 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday urged the United Nations to shut down a relief agency that provides services for Palestinian refugees.
On June 1, Israel discovered a tunnel underneath two schools in Gaza run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
During his weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he instructed the Foreign Ministry's director-general, Yuval Rotem, to file an official complaint with the U.N. Security Council. On Saturday, Israel's U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon wrote a letter of complaint to the Security Council's president.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said he told Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during a visit to Israel, that it was time for the United Nations to "re-examine UNRWA's continued existence." Haley visited an UNRWA school in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem and tunnels dug by Hamas on Israel's burder with Gaza as part of her three-day trip to the nation.
"The time has come to dismantle UNRWA and have its parts be integrated into the U.N. High Commission for Refugees," he said. He noted the agency is "perpetuating" the plight of Palestinian refugees.
He said the High Commission has helped tens of millions of displaced persons since World War II and a separate agency for Palestinians is unnecessary.
The UNRWA was created in 1949 in the wake of Israel's War of Independence. It protects some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees. It operates schools and provides healthcare and other social services in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
"Hamas uses schoolchildren as human shields," Netanyahu said Sunday. "This is an enemy we have been fighting for many years and committing a double war crime: On the one hand, they deliberately attack innocent civilians, and on the other hand they also hide behind children."
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness responded that only the U.N. General Assembly could shut down the agency. In 2016, it extended UNRWA's mandate to 2019.
"The situation of Palestine refugees needs to be resolved as part of a political resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is time for political action to resolve this long-standing crisis," he said.
On Friday, the UNRWA strongly condemned Hamas for digging the tunnel.
"It is unacceptable that students and staff are placed at risk in such a way," Gunness said in a statement. "The construction and presence of tunnels under U.N. premises are incompatible with the respect of privileges and immunities owed to the United Nations under applicable international law, which provides that U.N. premises shall be inviolable. The sanctity and neutrality of U.N. premises must be preserved at all times."
Hamas used tunnels along the Gaza Strip and into Israel during the 2014 war but it denied the UNRWA allegations. Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas doesn't have any "resistance-related works" in the area.
Israel has said some of UNRWA's Palestinian employees support terrorist activities and spread anti-Semitism online.
Hamas is listed as a terror organization by the United States and most of Europe.
In a letter to the president of the Security Council, Danon demanded that "this time, the international community must not turn a blind eye toward such cynical exploitation" of civilian infrastructure in Gaza by Hamas.