UN agency for Palestinians in damage control after US cuts

Employees escalated their protests in Gaza against sweeping dismissals

Palestinians prevent an UNWRA employee form setting himself on fire employee sits during a protest at the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City on Wednesday, July 25, 2018. UNWRA staff are protesting the agency's decision to fire dozens of Palestinian staff in Gaza in the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
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The UN agency for Palestinian refugees is facing an existential crisis after US cuts forced it to slash scores of jobs in the Gaza Strip, dismissals that led to sit-in protests on Thursday as the body seeks to preserve its essential services.

Hundreds of UNRWA staff announced an open-ended strike, demanding a reversal of the cuts to 154 staff, 125 of them in Gaza, and the downgrading of 580 employees to contract workers. One employee who lost his job tried to set himself alight at the protest before his colleagues stopped him.

The cause was a major slash in funding from the US, who cut $300 million in money to the agency, leaving it with a $217 million budget shortfall.

The agency is a vital lifeline to hundreds of Palestinians in the blockaded enclave that suffers 20-hour blackouts and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. It provides services to millions of Palestinians and their descendants who were made refugees after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Of the five areas in which the agency operates, Gaza is the most vulnerable given its dire living conditions and devastated economy after more than a decade under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. More than two-thirds of Gaza's population of 2 million are refugees or their descendants.

"We are still in crisis," Chris Gunness, spokesperson of UNRWA told The National in a statement. "Let no one claim otherwise. But we are also determined to maintain core services to the millions of Palestine refugees who rely on us in Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Syria, and preserve what we can of our emergency assistance."

The spokesman said the agency's responsibility was to give priority to the refugee with "the most critical needs" and therefore it had to protect core services such as education, health and relief. The agency will continue to provide assistance to the most impoverished refugees inside Palestinian camps, an emergency food program to nearly one million refugees and food assistance for the Bedouin community in the areas it operates.

Mr Gunness said the US cuts are the largest the agency has ever faced. US President Donald Trump initiated them in a bid to bring the Palestinians, angry over his embassy move to Jerusalem, back to the table in negotiations with Israel.

He cited a recent letter to UNRWA staff from its Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl in which he said that, despite all the challenges facing the agency, it "will prevail" and it will not weaken its “defense of the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees".

Now, the efforts of the agency will turn to donors in a bid to make up for the US decision to severely pull back the money it provides to helping Palestinian refugees.

"As we continue to pursue every avenue of support to overcome a severe financial crisis, UNRWA, its dedicated staff, and the refugees have only one option: to face up to this situation together and preserve the most important work we do," said Mr Gunness.