Employees of the UN Palestinian refugee agency suspended services in Gaza on Monday to protest pay cuts and dismissals caused by a massive financing shortfall as a result of US funding cuts.
Schools, clinics, and food distributions were halted as UNRWA’s 13,000 Palestinian employees in Gaza went on a one-day strike, threatening a “harsher” surge in protests if the agency didn’t rescind cuts by Thursday.
The United States, the largest single donor to UNRWA, ended its $350 million contribution this year, resulting in a $217 million budget shortfall.
The deficit caused 113 emergency program jobs to be scrapped and 584 staff positions were converted to part-time.
Thousands of employees of the agency protested in Gaza last week against the forced redundancies. 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 job cuts have sparked fierce protests, with UNRWA’s head in Gaza accusing the agency’s labor union in the enclave of “mutiny.”
Around 80 percent of Palestinians in the impoverished Gaza Strip are eligible for UNRWA aidץ
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 Palestinian territories, 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 five 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 nine 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.