UNRWA strike closes schools, clinics in West Bank camps

Garbage piles up, too, as labor action enters second month; dispute gets personal; UNRWA criticized by Palestinians and abroad.

By DAVID E. MILLER/THE MEDIA LINE
November 16, 2010 17:05
4 minute read.
UNRWA in gaza 298

UNRWA 224.88. (photo credit: AP [file])

 
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Schools and clinics are shuttered, and garbage has been piling up on streets across the West Bank’s 19 refugee camps, as some 5,000 striking employees of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) have brought critical public services to a halt in a pay dispute.

With the labor action now entering its second month, residents are growing angry and frustrated, and blame UNRWA for the problem. Dozens of people from the Deheisheh and Izza refugee camps near Bethlehem took to the streets Saturday in protest against what they termed the organization’s unwavering position towards its staff.

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"The strike is greatly harming Palestinian refugees," Isma'il Abu-Hashash, a striking UNRWA school principal from the Al-Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron, told The Media Line. "The biggest damage is caused to pupils, who have lost a month of school, in what has become a kind of prolonged summer vacation."

The camps, which have evolved over the decades since they were established into towns, are home to a large percentage of West Bank Palestinians, with the UN organization providing educational, health and social services. Some 56,000 pupils attend UNRWA schools and the organization operates about 30 clinics. Its annual budget of several-hundred-million dollars comes mainly from donor countries and the European Union.

In refugee camps across the West Bank piles of garbage were removed by private companies, volunteers and non-unionized UNRWA workers. Abu-Hashash said patients have found alternatives to UNRWA clinics in government hospitals or private clinics, but the lost school days were irretrievable. 

"Our youth wander the streets unsupervised," he said. "This has resulted in serious social problems, which only exacerbate existing academic weaknesses."    



UNRWA, a UN agency established in 1948, provides services to 4.8 million registered Palestinian refugees. Registered refugees are defined by UNRWA as residents of Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 "who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." Descendents are also eligible for registration.

UNRWA's Union of Arab Employees ordered members to walk off their jobs October 14th after demands to be compensated for missed work during a strike in June went unanswered. The union claimed that a memorandum signed with management guaranteed them compensation for six of the days they were on strike – half of them by direct payment and half by working overtime. But, Sami Mshasha, a spokesman for UNRWA, denied any such agreement was reached.

"UNRWA maintains a policy of 'no work – no pay'," he told The Media Line. "It’s unfortunate that a minor disagreement led the union to such an extreme measure, which harms hundreds of thousands of pupils. This issue could have been resolved at the negotiating table."

In fact, the labor dispute has generated personal animosities, with strikers blaming Barbara Shenstone, the West Bank field office director, for the deadlock and calling on her to leave the West Bank. Mshahsa condemned what he called the ad hominem attacks.

"It’s lamentable and disgraceful that some union representatives turned the dispute into a personal matter," he said. "This has never happened before. Such ad hominem attacks against devoted UNRWA officials are unacceptable."

Despite the tensions, Abu-Hashash said he expected the dispute would soon be resolved due to direct intervention by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi.

"The union shouldn’t have been so rash in deciding on an open-ended strike in response to an unimportant issue," Abu-Hashash said. "However, UNRWA was very adamant in its negotiations. It should have been more flexible in finding a solution."            

UNRWA claims that 1.4 million Palestinians, comprising 29% of all Palestinian refugees, reside in 58 recognized camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as in the neighboring Arab countries Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It teaches half a million children in nearly 700 schools, making it one of the largest school systems in the Middle East.

The strike, which is confined to the West Bank, is only one of several problems confronting UNRWA, which many in Israel accuse of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem and abetting violence against Israelis. Last month, Israel’s Defense Ministry rejected a UNRWA request to establish new schools in the Gaza Strip, contending that they would be built on land provided by Hamas and adjacent Hamas military installations.

Among Palestinians, UNRWA’s activities have also generated opposition. Last May, a group of 30 armed men set fire to an UNRWA construction site in Gaza, leaving a threatening letter containing four bullets to Gaza UNRWA Director John Ging. Last week, Israel allowed four automatic weapons to enter Gaza to be used by UNWRA workers for self-defense.

Some commentators say that after more than six decades of UNRWA assistance, Palestinian society has grown too dependent on aid. Last January, the Canadian government redirected help previously earmarked to UNRWA to democracy-building and accountability projects in the Palestinian Authority.

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