Palestinian refugees protesting on Tuesday outside UNRWA office in Nablus, northern West Bank, against termination of jobs. (WAFA Images / Ayman Noubani)
RAMALLAH, July 31, 2018 (WAFA) – The recent decision by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to end contracts of some 145 out of 1000 employees hired in Gaza on the emergency appeal program has drawn strong protests by thousands of employees who blocked UNRWA main offices in Gaza and prevented its staff from reaching them.
But the situation is not going to be confined to Gaza. UNRWA employees in the West Bank have also called for a series of activities and protests outside the UN agency’s offices in several West Bank cities on Tuesday to protest the latest cuts.
While only around 10 percent of the emergency appeal employees have lost their jobs, UNRWA officials wonder why all 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza are taking to the streets to protest the move and therefore disrupting vital work by the Agency.
“We have over 13,000 staff and only 1000 of this staff are linked to the emergency appeal and only 10 percent, just over 100 are losing their jobs. Yet we see this kind of massive protest blocking the compound and so on,” UNRWA Director of Operations in Gaza, Matthias Schmale, said in a telephone interview with WAFA.
“The immediate explanation is people are very, very worried that this is the beginning of something larger. That the next financially driven tough decision we might be forced into is the delay of the opening of our 275 schools in Gaza at the end of August. That‘s why I characterize the mood of deep concern and anxiety.”
Schmale admitted that losing jobs in Gaza at this critical time “is devastating.” Yet, he said, UNRWA was left with no choice in light of the severe financial crisis it is facing after the United States, the largest donor to UNRWA with $300 million annually, decided at the start of this year to end its contributions to the humanitarian agency for what Palestinians insist were political reasons.
Mohammad Sbakhi, director of UNRWA file in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Refugees Department, strongly criticized UNRWA for dismissing even 145 staff members.
“The situation in Gaza is unbearable,” he said from Gaza in a recent interview on Palestine TV. “In light of the blockade and the difficult economic situation and high unemployment in Gaza, ending contracts of employees is similar to sentencing them to death. This is unacceptable to us. Cutting services should not be at the expense of these employees.”
Sbakhi insisted that UNRWA financial crisis started long before the US decided to stop its contribution, but the UN agency has failed to deal with the situation in time.
“The Palestinian leadership has been following closely the difficulties and cuts in UNRWA, which has been suffering from a deficit for years but always moves the deficit to the next year. We tried to always warn of this and find a solution to the deficit through the Arabs and through partnership with UNRWA. This is not something born today.’
Instead of correcting the financial situation, said the Palestinian official, UNRWA proceeded with new programs, one them had to do with expanding its administrative staff worth $100 million.
Sbakhi admitted that cutting $300 million in aid to UNRWA is “an existential threat” and “a threat to the Palestinian cause in general,” describing it as “a conspiracy” against the Palestinian cause through plots to dismantle UNRWA and eventually end the refugee issue as one of the core final status issues between the Palestinians and Israel.
“UNRWA will not be dismantled and stopped,” said UNRWA’s Gaza director of operations Schmale, who insisted that the UN agency is doing all it can to get the money to keep its programs going and to keep paying salaries to its staff.
“We don’t have the money to do all the work we want to do. But for next year, a number of member countries have announced contributions. For at least four years, we will be getting $60 million a year from the Swedish Government. And we can safely assume the European Union will continue to give us some 80 million euros every year. We are not losing all support, but we don’t have enough money and that has significant implications. This is happening in a larger political context. I don’t know what the game plan of and the political dynamics among the member states are. I can only say I don’t have enough money to do my job and that our staff is very worried because they see this as a sign of a larger political problem that has an uncertain future. Can I assure everyone that is not part of some bigger thing happening, a larger thing, the answer is no. But as our Commissioner General has noted repeatedly, we will continue to do everything we can to mobilize the resources needed to deliver our core services such as education and health.”
Schmale and Sbakhi agreed that the devastating situation in Gaza and the 12-year-old Israeli blockade were the main cause of the problem.
“I think most of Gaza problems have to do with the 12 year blockade and the economy collapsing,” said Schmale. “The refugees will not have to be depending on our food if they had jobs to earn their own food. In that sense, it is not all about UNRWA. We need Gaza to be revitalized. We need the economy to be revitalized and as long as there are no concrete signs that that is happening, I remain very fearful for the future of Gaza, not just UNRWA. I think something fundamental must be done to change Gaza. The blockade needs to be lifted. UNRWA must be kept stable. People should be able to do business. The business people are in very big problem. That is why Mr. Mladenov representing the Secretary General is right to try his best to do his part in getting the economy going. As long as none of these initiatives are going to lead to concrete results, anyone should be very worried about the stability of Gaza and the wellbeing of its people.”
Sbakhi said preserving UNRWA is preserving stability and peace in the region.
“We have to preserve UNRWA because it is a stabilizing and peace factor in the region. We should not give extremism a chance.”
He called on UNRWA to go back on its decision to terminate jobs and to sit down on the table with the Palestinian Authority to find solutions to this critical issue. He said President Mahmoud Abbas has formed a special committee of senior officials to follow up on UNRWA situation and to find solutions to its problems.