The Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA evacuated most of its international senior officials from the Gaza Strip Monday due to fears for their safety.
The overseas staffers had received death threats and threats of violence after the announcement of cuts and planned layoffs by the organization in the wake of the US decision that it would no longer fund the agency.
The officials were said to have been harassed by employees of the agency.
An UNRWA source said a protest was held Monday outside a Gaza City hotel where agency officials were meeting.
The officials were taken out of the coastal enclave via the Erez Crossing, despite the fact that the checkpoint was officially closed for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
A source with knowledge of the situation said only six foreign staffers remained out of the 19 who are usually there.
The Israeli Defense Ministry unit that oversees the crossing said a number of foreign employees from the agency known as UNRWA “were evacuated from the Gaza Strip to Israel.”
The head and deputy head of UNRWA currently remain in Gaza, but Ynet reported that, according to multiple sources, they too may be evacuated in the future.
UNRWA confirmed later Monday it had “decided to temporarily withdraw part of its international staff from Gaza following a series of worrying security incidents affecting its personnel in the Strip.”
The agency’s statement said that “earlier today, a number of staff were harassed and prevented from carrying out their duties.”
“Some of these actions have specifically targeted the UNRWA management in Gaza,” it said.
It called on the authorities in the enclave run by Islamist terrorist movement Hamas “to respond to its repeated demands to provide effective protection to its employees and facilities.”
“The lack of effective security and safety risk impacting vital humanitarian services to more than 1.3 million refugees in Gaza,” it said.
UNRWA’s head in Gaza has previously accused the agency’s labour union in the enclave of “mutiny.”
The United States has traditionally been UNRWA’s largest contributor, providing around $350 million (300 million euros) a year, but President Donald Trump has cancelled all support.
It received pledges of $118 million from donor countries last week to help it overcome the funding crisis, but still has a shortfall of $68 million in its annual budget.
Despite the removal of part of its foreign staff, UNRWA operations were continuing in Gaza, the agency said.
Its director of operations and other international staff were remaining in Gaza, UNRWA said.
Donor countries have stepped in to help fill a $217 million budget short-fall left after the United States effectively ended its $350 million contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
The agency remains in the hole despite pledges of $118 million from donor countries and $46 million from the European Union to help it overcome the crisis.
But the deficit has led to the elimination of 113 jobs and 584 staff positions being converted to part-time. UNWRA’s Gaza employees went on strike Monday to protest pay cuts and dismissals.
Laid-off workers warn that 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.
Unemployment is high in the enclave and employees say their families will be at risk if they are laid off from the agency.
The agency 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.
The “right of return” is one of the key issues of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim that the 5 million people the UN recognizes as refugees have the right to return to their homes in Israel proper. Israel, for its part, rejects this demand, saying that it represents a bid by the Palestinians to destroy Israel by weight of numbers.
Israel’s population is almost 9 million, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish. An influx of millions of Palestinians would mean Israel would no longer be a Jewish-majority state.
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.
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.