Since US aid cuts, 956 UNRWA employees in Gaza have been dismissed and thousands remain at risk of losing their jobs
GAZA CITY, Palestine – Thousands of workers went on strike in the Gaza Strip on Monday to protest US funding cuts for the UN Palestinian refugee agency, which have led to the dismissal of hundreds of its staff members in the besieged enclave.
Earlier this month, the United States announced it was cancelling all aid for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, sending shockwaves through Palestinian society.
Last year, Washington – UNRWA’s largest donor until recently - supported the agency to the tune of $364m.
With all US support now pulled, UNRWA is scrambling to make up the shortfall in order to continue providing key services including education, healthcare and food assistance.
The UN has warned that such vital programmes will be cut unless $217m is found to replace the US aid.
The agency serves nearly five million Palestinian refugees who depend on its aid. More than 700,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes in the events leading to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Survivors and their descendants still live in camps across neighbouring Arab countries, the West Bank and Gaza.
Hundreds of UNRWA workers have already been laid off, with more dismissals feared to be on the horizon as the cuts begin to bite.
More than 13,000 employees from all sectors of the agency – including schools and medical clinics - staged a strike in Gaza on Monday. More than half of the population in the impoverished coastal enclave of two million are refugees.
So far, 956 UNRWA employees in Gaza have been dismissed and hundreds of teachers are at risk of having their contracts cancelled.
The labour union for UNRWA employees had called on all staff members to commit to the strike and participate in protest activities on Monday, stressing that everyone is under threat of being let go.
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"We want to send a message to UNRWA that it must return to dialogue," Amal al-Batsh, vice-head of the labour union, told Middle East Eye.
"The labour union will not waive the rights of its employees. UNRWA should maintain its staff if it really wants to continue to provide its services."
She added that laying off so many staff members amounts to a crime against Palestinian refugees.
Even for those who are still employed, job insecurity has paralysed the family life of many Palestinians, Batsh said.
Wejdan Matar, an UNRWA employee, said that the strike would continue until the agency reverses its decisions.
Matar said her hours were cut by the agencies, and she does not know how much her pay will be decreased. She added that it was difficult enough to make ends meet on a full salary.
The labour union has announced it will hold a press conference on Thursday outside UNRWA’s Gaza offices, threatening "unprecedented measures" in retaliation to the layoffs.
'Dismissing employees is a great crime and a malicious policy,' sign reads (MEE/Mohammed A Alhajjar)
"If UNRWA does not take back its decision before Thursday, it will be surprised by what we are going to do," said Ahmed Lubbad, vice-head of the services sector.
Many of the Palestinians who went on strike on Monday voiced their fears over the layoffs.
"I previously worked with a different international institution, but when I got a job at UNRWA I had to resign from that job, thinking I found what I had been missing all along: job security," said Jabir Thabet, a mental health worker who has been an UNRWA employee for three years.
Thabet was converted to a part-time employee because of a lack of funding. He called the decision a "violation of my rights".
"I refused to sign the [new] contract because it does not meet my needs of a father like myself who is responsible for a family and rent."
Ismail al-Talaa, who has been working for UNRWA for 15 years as spokesman for the emergency programme, was dismissed by UNRWA and given no notice – only a message saying: "Thank you for your cooperation with us, you have been dismissed".
"It felt like a bomb that exploded in all of us. After 60 days of protests, we have been told that the decision is still in effect," he added.
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Palestinians in Gaza have been under a devastating Israeli blockade for 11 years and they have been staging demonstrations against the UNRWA cuts for some time.
In July, an aid worker tried to set himself on fire after being dismissed by UNRWA.
Cancelling the aid, the US State Department accused UNRWA of being an "irredeemably flawed operation". Washington is also trying to change the definition of Palestinian refugees in a bid to take the right of return out of final status negotiations.
Sabri al-Malwani, a mental health worker, said on Monday he is the breadwinner for eight people in his family.
"UNRWA's decision is a capital punishment, not only on 1,000 employees but to over 10,000 refugees; each employee is responsible for a large number of dependants," he said.