UNRWA lays off hundreds of employees, triggering protests

Several employees fainted when they heard they had lost their jobs. One worker poured gasoline over his body and tried to set himself on fire before he was stopped by his co-workers.

Gaza tensions rise following UN funding cut to Palestinian refugee program UNRWA, July 30, 2018 (Reuters)
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday expressed outrage over a decision by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) to lay off hundreds of its employees.
Several employees fainted when they heard they had lost their jobs. One worker poured gasoline over his body and tried to set himself on fire before he was stopped by his co-workers.
Sources in the Gaza Strip said that some 1,000 employees have been affected by UNRWA’s latest measures, which include the immediate dismissal of 125 workers from the agency’s emergency program. UNRWA employees in the West Bank will also be affected by the measures.
Another 570 UNRWA employees were notified that they would be hired only on a parttime basis, while an additional 270 were told that their contracts would be terminated at the end of the year if the financial crisis is not resolved.
That budget meltdown is the direct result of the US administration’s decision to suspend more than half of the annual funding – $65 million out of $125 million – which it had previously UNRWA.
Palestinians see the Trump administration’s move as being part of an Israeli-US “conspiracy” to “liquidate the right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes inside Israel.
They believe that the US president has decided to gradually eliminate UNRWA so as to remove the issue of the refugees from the negotiating table between Palestinians and Israel.
The Palestinians are convinced that the US administration’s decision to cut funds to UNRWA by half are part of the yet-tobe- announced Trump plan for peace in the Middle East, which is also known as the “deal of the century” or the “ultimate deal.”
A Gaza-based group called the Committee for Defending the Rights of Refugees condemned the UNRWA measures, dubbing them “arbitrary practices.” The committee called on all Palestinians to launch widespread protests to force the agency to backtrack on its measures.
“The decision to lay off the UNRWA employees is in line with the political vision of Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to eliminate the issue of the refugees and prevent them from practicing their right to return to their homeland,” the committee charged in a statement.
Several Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip called for an open-ended strike in all UNRWA- run institutions in the Gaza Strip in protest against the layoffs.
The factions called on Palestinians to shut down UNRWA offices throughout the Gaza Strip and demand the resignation of its directors.
Ali Huwaidi, a representative of another refugee committee, said that the current crisis in UNRWA was “purely political.”
The issue of the refugees and the “right of return,” he said, was directly linked to UNRWA.
“Any threat to UNRWA is a threat to the right of return,” he added. “However, the right of return will not go away even if UNRWA vanishes.”
On Tuesday, dozens of UNRWA employees demonstrated inside the agency’s headquarters in the Gaza Strip and called on the agency to reverse its decision to lay off hundreds of workers. The protesters prevented UNRWA operations director Matthias Schmale from leaving his office for several hours. Schmale was later escorted out of the headquarters by UNRWA security personnel and local police.
Amir al-Mishal, a member of the UNRWA Unions’ Workers, warned that the agency’s recent measures, including the dismissal of hundreds of workers and the suspension of various services, would have “catastrophic repercussions on 1.3 million refugees in the Gaza Strip.
A spokesperson for UNRWA said on Wednesday that the Trump administration’s decision to cut the funding by half “posed an existential threat” to the agency. He said that the decision has aggravated the financial crisis that UNRWA is already facing.
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness said that the agency and its partners have mobilized political and financial support around the globe to maintain its operations and render essential services to its beneficiaries.
Between March and June, UNRWA raised $238 million in new funding for Palestinian refugees, he said.
“We are still in crisis, but we are also determined to maintain core services to the millions of Palestinian refugees and preserve what we can of our emergency assistance.”
In response to the decision to lay off UNRWA workers, Gunness said that his agency “recognizes the implications of such measures on affected staff.”
He added: “In recognition to the important service of these colleagues and their dedication, if they chose to apply in the future to vacant posts, they will be treated as ‘internal candidates’ allowing an exceptional greater opportunity for re-employment with the UNRWA.”