Gaza protests continue over Unrwa cutbacks

Trump decision to reduce funding to UN body aiding Palestinians will hit jobs and services

Palestinians in Gaza are expected to step up protests on Friday against service and job cuts by Unrwa, the UN agency providing for five million Palestinian refugees living in the Israeli-occupied territories and neighbouring countries.

Unrwa is set to axe 113 jobs in Gaza and 154 in the West Bank due to the dramatic drop in US funding from $364 million (€311 million), almost one-third of the agency’s $1.2 billion budget, to $65 million this year.

More than 500 other full-time staff will be offered part-time contracts, Unrwa spokesman Chris Gunness said. The agency, he said, intended to "protect core services" including relief, health and education.

Mobile clinics and mental health programmes are to be cut. Gazans, in particular, require treatment for trauma due to constant Israeli military pressure as well as Israeli army offensives. Refugees number 1.3 million in Gaza where the population is two million; 80 per cent of Gazans are sustained by aid.

Cuts criticised

Amal al-Batsh, deputy head of Unrwa’s staff union, criticised the cuts in services. “The decisions are unfair and will adversely affect employees and their families,” she told AFP.

Unrwa has more than 20,000 employees, overwhelmingly Palestinians whose families depend on their earnings.

On Wednesday, one man was prevented from setting himself alight as hundreds of Unrwa employees protested outside agency headquarters in Gaza, where 66 per cent of the population of two million left homes in areas conquered by Israel in 1948. On Thursday, Gaza staff of the agency went on strike.

Mr Gunness said the decision by the Trump administration to cut US support posed what Unrwa's head Pierre Krahenbuhl had described as an "existential threat" to the agency. Mr Gunness said Unrwa had mobilised traditional and new donors to raise $238 million in fresh funding. The $446 million deficit had been reduced to $217 million. During a June donors' conference $18 million had been pledged.

‘Emergency assistance’

Nevertheless, Mr Gunness said, “We are still in crisis . . . Our emergency assistance is critically underfunded in the occupied Palestinian territory, where the US contribution [of] almost $100 million per year is no longer available.”

He said “relentless efforts” were under way to ensure that the new school year for half a million students would start on time.

US president Donald Trump cut aid to Unrwa in January after the Palestinian Autority suspended relations with Washington following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and decision to shift the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city.

Palestinians argue that Mr Trump, a close Israeli ally, seeks to eliminate Palestinian refugees by dismantling Unrwa and settling them in host countries. Israel has long claimed Unrwa perpetuates Palestinian homelessness in order to exert political leverage on Israel.

In a letter to staff, Mr Krahenbuhl wrote that the agency "will prevail" and would not weaken its "defence of the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees".