UNRWA faces unrest in Gaza over funding cuts

UNRWA withdrew some of its international staff from Gaza due to security concerns.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Palestinian employees take part in a protest against job cuts by UNRWA in Gaza City, on September 19. (Reuters)
Mounting criticism. Palestinian employees take part in a protest against job cuts by UNRWA in Gaza City, on September 19. (Reuters)

LONDON - UNRWA, the UN agency established to support Palestinian refugees, is facing mounting criticism in Gaza as the agency begins to feel the pinch of US funding cuts.

Palestinian employees of UNRWA have staged strikes and protests after the agency laid off more than 100 workers in its emergency programme. UNRWA also turned hundreds of positions into part-time jobs.

The agency employs about 13,000 people in Gaza, where, the World Bank says, the unemployment rate is more than 50%.

The cuts have affected education and health services in the Palestinian enclave, where two-thirds of the 2 million people who live there are eligible for aid.

UNRWA withdrew some of its international staff from Gaza due to security concerns. Media reports said only six of 19 foreign staff members remained.

“A number of staff [members] were harassed and prevented from carrying out their duties by individuals protesting recent measures resulting from UNRWA’s challenging financial situation in particular in relation to the Emergency Appeal for the [occupied Palestinian territories]. Some of these actions have specifically targeted the UNRWA management in Gaza,” a statement by the agency read.

“This comes after weeks of protests, repeated incidents affecting international and national staff and takes place despite serious UNRWA efforts to engage authorities in an attempt to ensure proper security is afforded to its staff,” the statement added. “UNRWA calls upon the local authorities in Gaza to respond to its repeated demands to provide effective protection to its employees and facilities.”

Hamas officials said they would not allow UNRWA employees or facilities to be harmed.

“The protection measures did not change but due to the recent job reductions in the Gaza Strip there has been anger among the employees,” Eyad al-Bozom, spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry in Gaza, told Reuters. “We will not let these protests develop and we will not allow any attacks against employees or facilities.”

UNRWA runs more than 270 schools, giving them responsibility for about 280,000 students in Gaza.

UNRWA’s operations director, Matthias Schmale, told the Associated Press that the agency “can’t function properly” under current financial conditions.

The funding crisis was sparked by US President Donald Trump’s cancellation of $350 million in aid. The Trump administration and Israel oppose the work scope of UNRWA, which caters for 5 million Palestinian refugees in the region.

The United States and Israel argue that the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians who left their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948 should not have refugee status. The United States is apparently using the suspension of aid to urge the Palestinians to accept a Trump-sponsored peace plan with the Israelis.

The Palestinians have resisted US pressure and UNRWA has defended the way it calculates the number of refugees.

“No matter how often attempts are made to minimise or delegitimise the individual and collective experiences of Palestine refugees, the undeniable fact remains that they have rights under international law and represent a community of 5.4 million men, women and children who cannot simply be wished away,” UNRWA Commission-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in September.

He said the agency received pledges of $118 million during a meeting of officials from 34 states and organisations at UN headquarters. There remains a budget gap of $68 million for this year and the agency may not be able to secure funds in the future.

The UN development agency (UNCTAD) said the US decision to halt aid to Palestinian refugees would create “more misery.” “The situation in Gaza is becoming less and less liveable,” said Isabelle Durant, the deputy head of UNCTAD. “It is catastrophic.”

The World Bank warned that Gaza’s economy is in “free fall” as cuts to aid and salaries add to an already crippling economic crisis. “The economic deterioration in both Gaza and West Bank can no longer be counteracted by foreign aid, which has been in steady decline, nor by the private sector, which remains confined by restrictions on movement, access to primary materials and trade,” the World Bank said.

Half of all Gazans live below the poverty line, it said.

“Increased frustration is feeding into the increased tensions, which have already started spilling over into unrest and setting back the human development of the region’s large youth population,” said Marina Wes, World Bank director for the West Bank and Gaza.