Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Gaza's UN employees protest against US aid cut

UNRWA's Palestinian employees have been angered by a US decision to cut its annual contribution towards the running of the agency

Thousands of UNRWA employees demonstrate in support of the agency following US funding cuts, in Gaza City on January 29, 2018. Khalil Hamra / AP
Thousands of UNRWA employees demonstrate in support of the agency following US funding cuts, in Gaza City on January 29, 2018. Khalil Hamra / AP

Schools and clinics were closed in Gaza on Monday due to a 13,000-strong demonstration by people employed by the UN agency that serves Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA's employees have been angered by a US decision to cut its annual contribution towards the running of the agency, which operates 278 schools in Gaza attended by some 300,000 students.

The vocal strike lasted approximately three hours and saw people join in a solidarity walk through the streets of Gaza City in a bid to send a united message to member states.

Essential services like food distribution were not disrupted, the UN agency said.

The United Nations' Relief and Welfare Agency is funded mainly by voluntary contributions from UN member states, with the United States by far the largest donor. Washington announced on January 16 it would hold back US$65 million (Dh238.7m) — more than half its planned contribution for this year — demanding that the agency make unspecified reforms.

Those joining Monday's strike said the US funding cut would worsen hardship in Gaza. They marched to the UN headquarters in Gaza City waving Palestinian flags and brandishing banners that read "Dignity is priceless".

"I have a family of nine and I have never felt afraid for my job like today. US aid cuts will affect the entire community," said 59-year-old English teacher Ahmed Abu Suleiman.


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UNRWA spokesman Abu Hasna said the agency, which has launched an international appeal for funds, had enough money for three months of operations.The campaign aims to raise $500 million.

"We appreciate the fear and concern of employees for their jobs and for possible cuts in services," he said.

More than half of the two million people in Gaza are dependent on support from UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies. Unemployment in the enclave stands at 46 per cent.

The demonstration comes amid Palestinian anger over US president Donald Trump's decision last month to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In light of that decision, the Palestinian leadership has said the US can no longer be the mediator of any peace process.

Also on Monday, a hospital in Gaza was forced to stop services after it ran out of fuel, the health ministry said, in a further example of a severe electricity shortage facing the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Beit Hanoun hospital in northern Gaza had "suspended medical services because of the lack of fuel", with patients to be transferred to other hospitals, said Gazan health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al Qudra.

He said some 60,000 people are usually served by the hospital, which had been treating dozens of patients in serious condition.

Gaza is suffering from crippling energy shortages, with residents receiving only a few hours of power per day. The enclave needs 500 megawatts of electricity a day but receives less than half that.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Mr Trump criticised the Palestinian leadership for refusing to meet vice president Mike Pence during his visit to the region and suggested that such behaviour provided grounds for cutting aid.

"When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands — that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace," Mr Trump said.

UNRWA was established by the UN General Assembly in 1949 after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during the war that led to the creation of the state of Israel.