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Dhaka Tribune

UN agency closes East Jerusalem compound after arson

  • UNWRA Director cited serious security concerns
  • Israeli police opened an investigation into the incident
Update : 10 May 2024, 06:23 PM

The main United Nations aid agency for Palestinians closed its headquarters in East Jerusalem after local Israeli residents set fire to areas at the edge of the sprawling compound on Thursday, the agency said.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNWRA, said in a post on the social media platform X that he had decided to close the compound until proper security was restored. He said Thursday’s incident was the second in less than a week.

“This is an outrageous development. Once again, the lives of UN staff were at a serious risk,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the State of Israel as an occupying power to ensure that United Nations personnel and facilities are protected at all times,” he said.

Adam Bouloukos, director of UNRWA affairs in the occupied West Bank, said that with the aid of some colleagues, he had put out the fire which consumed around 70 metres of dry grass and scrub near the compound fence.

“We had about 100 people watching, clapping, cheering,” he said, adding that most appeared to be minors.

A second fire, lit shortly afterwards, burned near the agency’s fuel depot, posing a serious risk of a major explosion, he said, adding that he had been hit by stones as he sprayed the flames with a fire extinguisher.

UNRWA, set up to deal with the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 war around the time of Israel’s creation, has long been a target of Israeli hostility.

Israeli police said they had opened an investigation into a brush fire adjacent to the UNRWA compound. “Preliminary findings from the police investigation suggest the act was taken by young minors, purportedly falling below the statutory age threshold for criminal liability,” it said.

Since the start of the war on Gaza last October 7, Israeli officials have called repeatedly for the agency to be shut down, accusing it of complicity with Hamas in Gaza, a charge the United Nations strongly rejects.

“Since Oct 7, there’s definitely been an escalation of tension against UNRWA, attacks on UNRWA,” he told Reuters. “Not only the physical attacks we saw last night, the fire, but also a few days ago there was a demonstration that became very violent with destruction of our property outside this compound.”

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its indivisible capital, including eastern parts it captured in a 1967 war, which Palestinians seek as the future capital of an independent state.

Lazzarini said staff were present at the time of the incident but there were no casualties. However outdoor areas were damaged by the blaze, which was put out by staff after emergency services took time to respond.

In footage shared with Lazzarini’s post, smoke can be seen rising near buildings at the edge of the compound while the sound of chanting and singing can be heard.

A crowd accompanied by armed men were witnessed outside the compound chanting “Burn down the United Nations,” Lazzarini said.

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