Jerusalem — Holding a broom in one hand and a cardboard box in the other, Ismail Mussa swept away a morning’s worth of garbage and dust from the entrance to his clean, modern supermarket in the Shuafat refugee camp.
“If we don’t clean, it won’t get done,” Mussa said in fluent Hebrew as he placed the trash-filled box in a corner.
The camp — the sole Palestinian refugee camp within Jerusalem’s city limits — receives services from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). It is technically under some sort of Israeli jurisdiction (no one seems to know exactly what kind) but receives scant attention from either the government or Jerusalem municipality.
That could change if the next mayor of Jerusalem adopts the plan recently drawn up by Nir Barkat, the city’s outgoing mayor, to evict UNRWA and provide the services, including schooling, sanitation and health care, that the agency has been providing since the mid-1960s.
“Removing UNRWA will reduce the incitement and terror, will improve the services to residents, will increase the Israelization of the east of the city, and will contribute to the sovereignty and unity of Jerusalem,” Barkat said in September.
“It is time to set aside the attitude toward [Shuafat residents] as refugees and see them as residents and rehabilitate them,” Barkat said. “We will close their schools and give pupils hope and Israeli matriculation in the city’s schools, we will put an end to incitement, and we will replace their failed welfare services with our plan.”
Barkat’s plan, which he announced in early September, less than two months before municipal elections are slated to take place on Oct. 30, targets UNRWA at the most vulnerable time in the agency’s long history.
The Trump administration has largely defunded UNRWA, which provides services not only to the refugees of 1948 and 1967, but also to their descendants.
Both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu have accused UNRWA of perpetuating the refugee status of Palestinian refugees. Unlike UNHCR, which helps the world’s other refugees repatriate, settle in their host country or settle in a third country, UNRWA promotes only one agenda: the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
Once permanently settled, UNHCR refugees lose their refugee status. In contrast, Palestinian refugees maintain their status, even when they become citizens of another country.
Why Barkat, who has been Jerusalem’s mayor for 10 years, decided to supplant UNRWA’s role in Shuafat just months before his departure smacks of politics, observers say. He has his eye on a Knesset seat, they say.
“The decision is clearly political, and part of Barkat’s effort to be elected to the Knesset,” said Gerald Steinberg, a Bar Ilan University professor of political scientist. “He is following [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who recently reversed 51 years of Israeli policy by seeking to end UNRWA’s activities.”
For the Israeli political right and part of the center, “UNRWA’s presence, which perpetuates the 70-year-old conflict, is greater than any benefits in terms of services. For Barkat’s political career, this is a smart move,” Steinberg said.
Barkat, a secular, politically right-wing tech entrepreneur-turned-politician, is credited with developing Jerusalem’s cultural scene, opening venues on Shabbat and attracting business to the city. But he failed to create affordable housing and did not equalize services in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem with those offered in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness called Barkat’s plan “gravely irresponsible.”
Gunness said the agency is “specifically mandated” by the United Nations General Assembly “to deliver protection and assistance to Palestine refugees in occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, pending a resolution of the underlying conflict.”
UNRWA’s operations have been carried “with the cooperation and at the request of the State of Israel,” the spokesman said.
Politics aside, no one disagrees that Shuafat needs far better services than UNRWA is providing. Raw sewage trickles down the narrow streets, which are littered with piles of garbage. Although UNRWA workers collect some of the trash, the camp’s open-air garbage collection site gives off a nauseating odor that can be discerned blocks away. An UNRWA school for boys and several stores shares the road with the trash site. Many of the camp’s buildings are in danger of collapsing, according to residents.
Although always a poor cousin even to Jerusalem’s neglected East Jerusalem neighborhoods, Israel’s decision to build the security wall and a checkpoint that separate the camp from the rest of the city only exacerbated its woes.
“You can wait an hour or more in traffic at the checkpoint,” M., a camp resident who worked in the Israeli government for 30 years, noted.
“Pregnant women have died because the police detained them at the checkpoint. We had far fewer problems when we could move freely in Jerusalem.”
M., who requested anonymity, said the checkpoint should never have been built because the majority of Shuafat’s residents hold Israeli I.D. cards, which should provide them unlimited mobility throughout the city.
M. said he would welcome the Jerusalem municipality in lieu of UNRWA, but only if the Israeli government removes the checkpoint and provides Shuafat with the same level of services it provides in overwhelmingly Jewish West Jerusalem.
“First, get rid of the checkpoint and then we can sit and discuss who should provide us with services,” M. said. “At least Jerusalem’s municipal workers work for a full day. UNRWA workers work just four or five hours a day, and you can see the results,” said the retired government employee, pointing to the garbage strewn across his narrow street.
M. said the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality have all but abandoned Shuafat, a place the Israeli police rarely enter. Meanwhile, the municipality bans Palestinian security forces from the camp.
Several residents said the government expects residents to settle disputes by speaking with a trouble-maker’s parents or calling in the muktar, the head of a neighborhood or village.
In his aromatic spice and sweet shop, Allah Hazowi concurred that “there is no one to call” when there is trouble or things break down.
First, get rid of the checkpoint and then we can sit and discuss who should provide us with services.
“Sewage runs down the street 24 hours a day. When the Israeli police do come it’s to enforce a regulation we didn’t know existed.”
Like many residents of this camp, Abdullah Abd Albari is critical of UNRWA but skeptical the Jerusalem municipality will solve its problems.
“Barkat had 10 years to make improvements but where was he? The city has just begun to collect arnona,” municipal property taxes “The question is, will the city’s services begin to reach our side of the checkpoint?”