Thousands of employees of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees protested in Gaza on Wednesday against forced redundancies as a result of US funding cuts, announcing a one-day strike next week.
More than 5,000 people attended the march that began at the Gaza headquarters of UNRWA, including senior figures from the enclave’s terrorist rulers Hamas and other political factions.
The agency announced it would cut more than 250 jobs in Gaza and the West Bank and make over 500 other positions part-time, as it seeks to survive crippling financial shortfalls caused by US aid cuts.
Washington has provided more than $350 million a year for the agency, but US President Donald Trump pulled all funding earlier this year.
More than five million Palestinians are eligible for UNRWA support, while around three million access its services.
The job cuts have sparked fierce protests, with UNRWA’s head in Gaza accusing the agency’s labor union in the enclave of “mutiny.”
During Wednesday’s demonstration union representative Amir al-Mashal announced “a full strike in all UNRWA agencies on Monday, as a first step of protests.”
He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to intervene.
Around 80 percent of Palestinians in the impoverished Gaza Strip are eligible for UNRWA aid, while the agency employs around 13,000 people there.
Unemployment is high in the enclave and employees say their families will be at risk if they are laid off from the agency.
The United Nations warned last week that the situation in Gaza is “catastrophic” after 11 years under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, during which Hamas and Israel have fought three wars.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.
Palestinians protested Wednesday at a new location along the perimeter fence between Israel and Gaza as Hamas intensified demonstrations at the border after Egyptian-led cease-fire talks stalled.
The Hamas terrorist group was hoping its indirect talks with Israel would result in the lifting of the blockade, but it accused the West Bank-based PA of thwarting the negotiations.
For months, the marches were limited to Fridays but Wednesday’s protest is the third this week, with new locations including Gaza’s northwestern tip at the Mediterranean where land and sea boundaries converge. On Tuesday, Palestinians protested outside Erez, the only crossing point for people into Israel.
In a statement on Wednesday evening at the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the IDF said that violent riots took place at several points along the border, and that soldiers dispersed the crowds according to protocols.
The IDF also said that two suspects crossed the security fence to the south of the Gaza Strip, where they were arrested and taken for questioning. They were not found to be carrying weapons.
A further group of Gazans were also said to have broken through the security fence and entered Israeli territory, with one of them vandalizing a military outpost. And in a further incident, a group of four people broke through to Israel before immediately returning to Gaza, leaving a container of fuel and ignition kit near the fence.
Fire services on Wednesday extinguished four blazes ignited by incendiary devices flown into southern Israel from Gaza.
“This thunderous march will not stop until the ordeal is over. This is our resolution,” Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said during the funeral of a Palestinian killed a day earlier at a protest.
For Hamas, giving new momentum to the protests aims at building more pressure on Israel.
“Creating new ways and tactics and diversifying the marches is meant to achieve the coveted goal of … the lifting of the siege,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.
The Gaza-Israel frontier has been volatile for months, with the Hamas terror group leading weekly marches on the fence that have recently ramped back up after a brief lull in tensions.
Hamas was close to reaching a deal and the mediation efforts reached their peak in August, but intervention by Abbas resulted in “confusing and slowing” the discussions, Qassem said.
With limited options, Hamas resorted to escalating the protests in response to “its feeling that it was let down,” said independent Gaza analyst Akram Attallah.
Hamas expects the persistence of the protests will become “annoying to Israel and invite a renewal of mediation diplomacy,” he said.
A surge of violence in Gaza began in March with a series of protests along the border that were dubbed the “March of Return.” The clashes, which Israel says are being orchestrated by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, have included regular rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as shooting and IED attacks aimed at IDF soldiers and attempts to breach the border fence.
Gaza protesters have also launched incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned crops, and killed livestock. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials. Some balloons have carried improvised explosive devices.
Israel says its actions — and in particular the use of live ammunition — are necessary to defend the border and stop mass infiltrations from the territory. Israel has accused the Hamas terror group of encouraging the protests and using them as cover to attempt to carry out terror attacks, including firing at troops and attempting to breach the border fence.
Israeli fire has killed at least 133 Palestinians during the protests which began in late March. Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members.