UN agency closes East Jerusalem HQ after arson attack by ‘Israeli extremists’

Unrwa chief says compound has faced a number of attacks, with lives of UN staff at serious risk

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has temporarily closed its East Jerusalem headquarters after weeks of attacks.

“This evening, Israeli residents set fire twice to the perimeter of the Unrwa headquarters in occupied East Jerusalem,” the head of the agency, Philippe Lazzarini, tweeted, lamenting that it was the second attack on the compound within days.

“A crowd accompanied by armed men were witnessed outside the compound chanting ‘Burn down the United Nations’.”

Staff from the Unrwa and other UN agencies were on the compound, which has 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.

The attack came after two months of “Israeli extremists staging protests outside the Unrwa compound”, he said. One protest this week “became violent when demonstrators threw stones at UN staff and at the buildings of the compound”.

In recent months, hundreds of Israeli settlers and rightwing activists have protested by blocking the entrances of the UN agency and calling for its closure.

Thursday’s arson attempts marked “an outrageous development”, Lazzarini said. He added: “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 said: “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.”

In March, Israel announced it would no longer approve Unrwa food convoys to the north of Gaza, where the threat of famine is highest. The decision came after the agency was accused by the government of collaborating with Hamas in Gaza. Its staff have faced a systematic campaign of obstruction and harassment by the Israeli military and authorities, as revealed in internal UN documents seen by the Guardian.

The accusations by Israel led many donor countries, including its leading donor, the US, 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 of the Unrwa, led by the French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna, found some “neutrality-related issues” but said Israel had yet to provide evidence for its chief allegations.

A US intelligence assessment of Israel’s accusations that UN aid agency staff members participated in the 7 October attack reportedly claimed with “low confidence” that a handful of staff had taken part and could not independently confirm the veracity of the accusations.

Jonathan Fowler, the Unrwa’s senior communications manager, said: “Since the beginning of the war, Unrwa has frequently been viewed as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

“Our staff cannot move freely in the West Bank; they are unable to reach our headquarter in Jerusalem from the West Bank. Even 12- to 13-year-old children throw stones at our vehicles in the streets. While we were attempting to extinguish the flames, people protesting against us were throwing large rocks at the building.

“The police present did nothing to stop it. In fact, the words released to the press by the deputy mayor of Jerusalem continue to fuel the fire.”

Aryeh King, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a prominent advocate for settlements, has joined the settlers in protests against the Unrwa headquarters in recent months.

“It is an honour to be responsible for the closure of the centre of the Nazi and antisemitic enemy within Jerusalem,” King told Israeli national public broadcaster Kan on Thursday.

“Our next step is to shift the demonstrations to the French Hill neighbourhood, and ultimately to ensure the expulsion of Unrwa from the Qalandiya neighbourhood in the West Bank.”

Qatar’s foreign ministry on Thursday condemned “in the strongest terms the attack by Israeli settlers on the Unrwa headquarters”.

The ministry criticised the “systematic Israeli targeting of Unrwa”, maintaining the aim was “to liquidate it and deprive millions of Palestinians of its necessary services”.

The Unrwa was founded in 1949 after the establishment of the state of Israel and subsequent war to provide healthcare, food, and education to Palestinian refugees, with 5.9 million people relying on its services. It employs about 30,000 Palestinians, 13,000 of them – mostly teachers – in Gaza.

Rightwing supporters and settlers have previously attempted to block Unrwa aid trucks from entering Gaza at the Nitzana border crossing.

On Thursday, Israeli demonstrators blocked a road near the desert town of Mitzpe Ramon to protest against the delivery of aid trucks into the Gaza Strip. The protesters – who say the aid is helping Hamas and want to block its passage until all Israeli hostages are freed – formed a sit-in protest as they scattered rocks across the road to prevent vehicles from passing, creating standstill traffic. Drone video showed trucks as well as other vehicles lined in traffic jams on a winding desert road.

Early in the week, one of the main crossings used to deliver humanitarian aid into Gaza was closed after a rocket attack claimed by Hamas killed three soldiers, the Israeli military said, with a reprisal strike on a house in Rafah reportedly killing at least three Palestinians.

Israel’s military said 10 projectiles were launched from Rafah in southern Gaza towards the area of the Kerem Shalom crossing. The crossing was closed soon after but others remained open.

The armed wing of Hamas said it fired rockets at an Israeli army base next to the crossing, but did not confirm from where it fired them. Hamas media quoted a source close to the group as saying the commercial crossing was not the target. Israel’s military said it believed Hamas was targeting soldiers massed on the Gaza border in preparation for a possible Rafah invasion.

More than a million Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah, near the border with Egypt. Israel has vowed to enter the southern Gaza city and flush out Hamas forces but has faced increasing pressure to hold fire as the operation could derail fragile humanitarian efforts in Gaza and endanger many more lives.

Lazzarini called for an independent investigation into the attack at the crossing. He also said Israel this week had denied him entry to Gaza for a second time.