EAST JERUSALEM - The head of the UN Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA) has temporarily closed its headquarters in occupied East Jerusalem after an arson attack on Thursday following weeks of protests.

Posting on social media, Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said “Israeli residents set fire twice to the perimeter” on Thursday evening. UNRWA personnel and staff from other UN agencies were inside the compound at the time.

"Our director with the help of other staff had to put out the fire themselves as it took the Israeli fire extinguishers and police a while before they turned up," he said.

This marked “the second appalling incident in less than a week” following a similar violent protest on Tuesday.

‘An outrageous development’

While there were no casualties among UNRWA staff, the fire caused extensive damage to the outdoor areas, he said, noting that a petrol and diesel station is on the grounds to service the agency’s fleet of cars.

A crowd accompanied by armed men were witnessed outside the compound chanting “burn down the United Nations,” he added.

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

Protest turned violent

Mr. Lazzarini said he has taken the decision to close down the compound “until proper security is restored”.

Israeli extremists have been staging protests outside the UNRWA compound in Jerusalem over the past two months “called by an elected member of the Jerusalem municipality.”

He noted that Tuesday’s protest had turned violent when demonstrators threw stones at UN staff and at the buildings, “under the watch of the Israeli police.”

Harassment, intimidation and vandalism

“Over the past months, UN staff have regularly been subjected to harassment and intimidation. Our compound has been seriously vandalized and damaged. On several occasions, Israeli extremists threatened our staff with guns,” he said.

The UNRWA chief stressed that it is the responsibility of Israel as the occupying power to ensure that UN personnel and facilities are protected at all times.

“I call on all those who have influence to put an end to these attacks and hold all those responsible accountable,” he said. “The perpetrators of these attacks must be investigated and those responsible must be held accountable. Anything less will set a new dangerous standard.”