JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it's time for the United Nations to "reconsider the continued existence" of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).
Netanyahu made the comments against the backdrop of the recent discovery of a Hamas terror tunnel constructed beneath two UNRWA schools in the Gaza Strip.
"A Hamas tunnel has recently been discovered under two schools in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is using schoolchildren as human shields and this is the enemy that we have been fighting against for many years, an enemy that is committing a twofold war crime. On the one hand, it first attacks innocent civilians and then hides behind children," Netanyahu said, adding that he'd instructed the Foreign Ministry director general to file an official protest with the U.N. Security Council against Hamas regarding the tunnel.
He told cabinet ministers he'd discussed UNRWA with U.S. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley last week and thanked her for the strong stance she's taking on behalf of Israel at the United Nations.
"Since World War Two, there has been – and continue to be today – millions of refugees. And these millions have the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), while most of the Palestinian refugees are settled and have a separate commission. This is UNRWA; it has its own institutions and considerable incitement against Israel," Netanyahu explained.
UNRWA Perpetuates the 'Refugee Problem'
"I regret that UNRWA, to a large degree, by its very existence, perpetuates – and does not solve – the Palestinian refugee problem. Therefore, the time has come to disband UNRWA and integrate it into the UNHCR," said Netanyahu.
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness responded by saying only the U.N. General Assembly has the authority to decide UNRWA's fate, noting that in December "a large majority" extended the agency's mandate this past December by three years.
Gunness said UNRWA condemned "the existence of such tunnels in the strongest possible terms."
UNRWA employees discovered the tunnel on June 1 during the construction of an extension of one of the buildings, while students were on summer vacation.
Like other Hamas attack tunnels, it runs from inside Gaza toward the Israeli border and about 2-3 meters (yards) under the schools.
According to Gunness, UNRWA reached an agreement with Hamas "…to seal the tunnel under its premises as an immediate priority" after "robustly" intervening and protesting to Hamas.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called Netanyahu's remarks "baseless accusations," saying Hamas has nothing to do with the tunnel and warning UNRWA "to withdraw its accusations against Hamas" to avoid jeopardizing its relationship with Hamas.
Meanwhile, Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said, "It is clear as day that the Arab world in its entirety now understands that the terrorist organization Hamas is destroying the Gaza Strip and eliminating any prospects of a better future for Gazans. Perhaps it is time for the residents of Gaza to understand it themselves," the Israeli daily Israel Hayom reported.