UN workers strike in Gaza to protest layoffs amid funding woes
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UN workers strike in Gaza to protest layoffs amid funding woes

Hundreds of local UNRWA staff fired as agency grapples with budget crisis after US defunding

Palestinian employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a sit in, in front of the agency's headquarters in Gaza City on October 2, 2018, to protest against job cuts announced by the agency.  (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
Palestinian employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a sit in, in front of the agency's headquarters in Gaza City on October 2, 2018, to protest against job cuts announced by the agency. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Workers for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees went on strike Tuesday to protest job cuts due to a funding crisis sparked by US President Donald Trump’s aid cancellation.

The agency’s operations were largely paralyzed in the impoverished Palestinian enclave run by the Hamas terrorist group, where its schools, health care centers, and food distribution offices play an important role.

UNRWA, as the agency is known, runs more than 270 schools with some 280,000 students in the strip, where the Hamas terrorist organization is in power.

The two-day strike follows more than 250 job cuts in Gaza and the West Bank. More than 500 full-time roles have also become part-time.

Even before the strike, laid-off employees had been preventing international and local staff from accessing UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City.

On Monday, the agency pulled part of its international staff out of the Gaza Strip due to security concerns, it said.

A source with knowledge of the situation said six foreign staffers remained out of the 19 who are usually present.

A Palestinian woman walks past a closed health center that run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) during a strike of all UNRWA institutions in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on September 24, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Amir al-Mashal, head of the UNRWA employees union in Gaza, pledged “an intensification of union actions” in the coming weeks.

Adnan Abu Hasna, an UNRWA spokesman in Gaza, called on the union to “return to the negotiating table immediately.”

A Hamas official said on condition of anonymity on Tuesday that “no harm has been done to any Arab or foreign staff,” while adding the ruling terror group supported the employees’ demands.

“The agency’s crisis has been invented for political reasons,” he said. “No one can take way refugees’ right of return.”

UNRWA is grappling with a severe financial crisis after the US administration cut $300 million in planned 2018 funding.

Though the agency was pledged $118 million in donations last week, it remains $68 million in the hole for this year. And in January, UNRWA will face the problem of trying to find funding for next year’s budget of about $1.2 billion.

Palestinian students receive new study books inside their classroom, during the first day of a new school year, at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Laid-off workers have staged protests and strikes in recent weeks, warning that without their jobs, their families will be at serious risk in blockaded Gaza, where unemployment is at some 53 percent.

Around 80 percent of Palestinians in the impoverished Gaza Strip are eligible for UNRWA aid.

UNRWA supports some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and provides schooling for 526,000 children in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by, uniquely, 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.

A picture taken on June 1, 2018 shows a girl running past hovels near a sewage water pool at a poor neighborhood in Gaza City. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

However, sources in the Israeli defense establishment fear that Washington’s apparent efforts to weaken UNRWA may strengthen the Hamas terror group in Gaza and endanger Israel’s security.

They say that serious cuts to UNRWA’s budget would create a vacuum in the provision of basic services in the Strip, where the majority of residents are dependent on the organization. This would be particularly felt in food shortages and a breakdown of education, which Hamas could use to strengthen its grip on the coastal enclave.

The United Nations has warned 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.

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