TEL AVIV // The United Nations said yesterday that its food distribution to most of Gaza's poverty-stricken population could be suspended for "days or even weeks" after its headquarters in the territory was stormed by protesters.
The move is likely to exacerbate the dire conditions in Gaza, where a third of inhabitants are unemployed and more than two-thirds of the 1.7 million-population rely on aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Gaza protesters, angered by the agency's decision to cut cash allowances, on Thursday overran the Gaza City field office of UNRWA - the main UN humanitarian agency for Palestinians.
It was the first time in at least a decade that a crowd had overrun the office, which is staffed by 500 Gazans and dozens of international aid workers.
"They were screaming, shouting and threatening employees," Adnan Abu Hasna, media adviser for UNRWA in Gaza, told The National. "It was a really serious danger for staff. We cannot work in such conditions - who knows when these verbal threats will turn into physical attacks?"
The demonstrations in Gaza come amid escalating violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Sporadic clashes took place between Palestinians and Israeli troops for a fourth straight day yesterday amid controversy over the death this week of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail from throat cancer.
Israeli police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at Palestinian protesters in East Jerusalem, injuring 12.
The prison conditions of Palestinian inmates in Israel are one of the most sensitive issues for Palestinians, and leaders in the West Bank have accused Israel of not providing the inmate, Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, with enough medical care.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded yesterday that Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, provide a map for a future Palestinian state before talks can resume.
Mr Abbas' political adviser, Nimr Hammad, said that the Palestinian leader "wants to know, through a map to be presented by Benjamin Netanyahu to [US Secretary of State John] Kerry, what the prime minister's view of a two-state solution would be, especially the borders".
Mr Kerry is due back in the region tomorrow for the second time in two weeks, and will meet Mr Abbas in Jordan on Monday and with Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
The demonstrations in Gaza did not appear to be linked to the frustrations in the West Bank over the prisoner's death but reflected growing economic hardships that have for a large part been spurred by Israeli restrictions on the territory.
UNRWA said that in addition to breaking into its main field office, demonstrators also stormed some of its smaller offices throughout the territory in the past 10 days
They have been protesting against the agency's cut of cash allowances starting this month to about 21,000 of Gaza's poorest families.
The US$4 million-programme for cash allowances - slashed because of a shortfall in donor funds - hands out $10 (Dh37) per person from those families every three months.
The Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, condemned the agency for suspending food distribution.
"This is an unjustified step from UNRWA," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman. "There is a right of peaceful protest for Palestinian refugees. We call on UNRWA to re-evaluate its position and not to overreact to residents protest."
According to Hamas, the group has posted security forces at UNRWA offices to prevent any further demonstrations and break-ins.
Mr Abu Hasna said that the UN agency demands that Hamas and refugee representatives provide its offices with consistent security, adding that "it could be a matter of days or weeks" until the food distribution offices are reopened.
UNRWA's work in Gaza, where more than a million residents are viewed as refugees, is critical in providing services such as food, employment and medical care.
According to UNRWA, the agency has a deficit of $67m mostly due to shortfalls in donations from Arab League countries, with the exception of states including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait. Mr Abu Hasna said that Arab League countries have in the past committed to supplying 7.5 per cent of UNRWA's annual budget of $40m but are only providing some 1.5 per cent of it.
UNRWA provides aid to Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, estimated at a total of about five million.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse