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Jerusalem to remove UNRWA to 'end lie of Palestine refugees'

City's mayor, Nir Barkat, says cut in US aid creates 'rare opportunity' to replace UNRWA with Jerusalem municipality.

Jerusalem's mayor has said he plans to remove a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees from the city to "end the lie of the Palestinian refugee problem".

Nir Barkat on Thursday said schools, clinics and sports centres, among other services operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in East Jerusalem, will be transferred to Israeli authorities.

The municipality did not provide an exact timeline, but it said schools serving 1,800 students would be closed by the end of the current school year.

Barkat, who is set to step down following municipal elections at the end of the month, said the US decision to cut $300m in aid to the agency earlier this year prompted the move.

"The US decision has created a rare opportunity to replace UNRWA's services with the services of the Jerusalem Municipality," he said, accusing the body of operating illegally and promoting incitement against Israel.

"We are putting an end to the lie of the 'Palestinian refugee problem' and the attempts at creating a false sovereignty within a sovereignty," Barkat said in a statement, claiming the schools and clinics were illegal and operating without an Israeli license.

UNRWA did not immediately respond to a request for comment by the Associated Press.

Why UNRWA matters

UNRWA was established in 1949 after 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes by Zionist paramilitaries in the run-up to the establishment of the state of Israel.

The agency now provides education, healthcare and social services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The agency helps more than half of the Gaza Strip's population of two million, devastated by more than 10 years of blockade.

Israel criticises UNRWA for the way it counts the refugees - its total includes the descendants of refugees who were originally displaced by the creation of Israel.

Israel fears that the passing of refugee status from parents to children could threaten the country's so-called "Jewish character", as Palestinians claim the right of return to their ancestral homeland.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused UNRWA of promoting "fictitious refugees", calling for its responsibilities should be taken over by the main UN refugee agency.

The US, meanwhile, has demanded the agency carry out reforms before it restores funding.

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