UN workers in Gaza protest Trump’s funding freeze
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UN workers in Gaza protest Trump’s funding freeze

UNRWA’s Gaza director tells US president to protect ‘all these people that are doing something good in the lives of refugees’

Palestinian women take part in a protest in Gaza City on January 29, 2018, against the US move to freeze funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinian women take part in a protest in Gaza City on January 29, 2018, against the US move to freeze funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Thousands of employees at the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees protested Monday in Gaza against US President Donald Trump’s suspension of tens of millions of dollars in aid.

The United States suspended $65 million to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) earlier this month, as well as a separate $45 million in food aid.

Thousands of teachers, medical professionals and other staff gathered in Gaza City to protest the cuts that UNRWA officials have warned could threaten the education of more than half a million children.

The agency provides support for more than three million Palestinians across the Middle East, descendants of Palestinians who left their lands in the State of Israel during and after the 1948 War of Independence.

Palestinian protesters demonstrate in Gaza City on January 29, 2018 against the US move to freeze funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. Arabic writing on placard (R) reads: “The refugees’ right of return is a sacred right”. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“By turning out in such huge numbers and peacefully you are giving a powerful message to the world,” Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, told the crowd.

Addressing the United States, he warned Trump of politicizing humanitarian aid for millions of impoverished people.

“You have been our biggest partner for decades, the United States, and you have helped us build one of the most effective and results-orientated public service organizations in the world.

“Protect this investment — all these people that are doing something good in the lives of refugees.”

Trump has accused the Palestinians of refusing to engage in peace talks with Israel, saying last week the US would suspend funding of aid until the Palestinians returned to the table.

Palestinian protesters demonstrate in Gaza City on January 29, 2018 against the US move to freeze funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. (MOHAMMED ABED/ AFP PHOTO )

“We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands — that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.

The Palestinian leadership froze ties with the Trump administration after his controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying Washington could no longer be the main mediator in talks with Israel.

The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Israel, which captured the eastern part of the city in 1967 and later extended Israeli law over the area, considers the undivided city the eternal capital of Israel.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

UNRWA counters that it is caring for a population that is scattered in several countries in the region, but is not served either by Israel or those countries, which refuse to grant most of them or their descendants citizenship, and that its definition of refugees reflects that reality.

The $65 million that the US State Department has withheld forms part of the $120 million it planned to contribute to UNRWA this month, one of several payments to the agency slated for 2018.

The US has told UNRWA that future US donations will be contingent on major changes by the organization.

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