Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took aim on Sunday at UNRWA and NGOs funded by foreign governments, saying the former should be dismantled and the later discontinued.
Speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu referred to a Hamas tunnel that was discovered earlier this month under two UNRWA schools in the Gaza Strip. He said he told US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, when they met last week in Jerusalem, that “the time has come for the UN to reconsider the continued existence of UNRWA.”
Netanyahu said the UN has a refugee agency, UNHCR (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), that deals, as it has since World War II, with millions of refugees around the world. Palestinians, he pointed out, have their own separate commission, UNRWA – the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – which he said also incites against Israel.
“I regret that UNRWA, to a large degree, by its very existence, perpetuates – and does not solve – the Palestinian refugee problem,” he said.
“Therefore, the time has come to disband UNRWA and integrate it into the UNHCR.”
The prime minister’s call to disband UNRWA, however, is not necessarily the position of all the relevant bodies in Israel that deal with the organization.
Although there is considerable criticism of UNRWA, some officials maintain that it provides necessary humanitarian assistance, and that if it would cease to exist, it is not clear who would pick up the slack.
According to this school of thought, efforts should be made to change the way UNRWA operates, but not necessarily to harm its humanitarian assistance.
UNRWA, meanwhile, issued a statement on Sunday saying that the organization receives its mandate from the UN General Assembly, “and only the UN General Assembly, by a majority vote, can change our mandate.” The statement pointed out that the organization’s mandate was extended for three years last December.
Netanyahu also stepped up his battle with foreign governments’ funding of nongovernmental organizations operating in Israel, saying at a meeting of coalition leaders after the cabinet meeting that the law that was passed last year dealing with the matter was not strong enough, and there was a need to beef it up to prevent all such funding.
The prime minister said he succeeded recently in convincing Norway to withdraw funds it had sent, an apparent reference to Norway’s decision to withdraw its funds from a Palestinian center in the West Bank named after Dalal Mughrabi, a female terrorist who took part in the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre that killed 37 people.
Netanyahu’s comments on Sunday come just two weeks after he told Likud MKs of his new policy to boycott foreign leaders who meet with far-left NGOs. In April, he canceled a meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel after the German diplomat insisted on going through with a meeting with the far-left NGO Breaking the Silence.
Matan Peleg, director-general of the rightwing NGO Im Tirtzu, on Sunday welcomed Netanyahu’s comments about making the NGO law more stringent.
“This law is vital and critical and meant to defend Israeli democracy from meddling from foreign countries in its domestic matters,” he said. “Israel is a stable democratic state and not a banana republic. Disrespect and abuse of Israeli sovereignty by planted organizations must stop.”
Meretz MK Michal Rozin had a completely different take. She said that Netanyahu’s comments show the “bluff” that was involved in last year’s NGO legislation, when the law was presented as an effort to increase transparency of NGOs.
“This is another effort by the prime minister to wink at the Right at the expense of Israeli democracy,” she said, adding that although such reinforced legislation would not pass legal scrutiny, the proposal sends a “grave” public message.
“The NGOs are not the problem, but rather the solution, and that is why the rightwing government is trembling,” she said.
Last year’s bill that Netanyahu wants to make more stringent states that any nonprofit organization that receives more than half of its funding from a foreign political entity has to indicate as much in any publication or letter to elected officials or civil servants.
In addition, a list of the NGOs falling under the bill’s mandate, as well as the countries from which they received donations, has to be posted on the Non-Profit Registrar’s website. The vast majority of organizations for whom this law applies – 25 out of 27 – are left wing.