Al Amari Camp, West Bank - Hamzeh Al Bis has not been to school for more than 40 days. His school in Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah - run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - was shut down due to a strike by the agency's employees because of a dispute over wages.
This week, Al Bis was one of scores of mostly young Palestinians protesting the lack of medical and educational services in the camp brought about by the strike. The protesters closed off the main road linking Ramallah with Jerusalem. Plumes of smoke bellowed from the camp's entrance as boys and young men set fire to tree branches, tires and trash - which hasn't been picked up by the UN-run trucks for more than a month since the strike began.
"We are protesting because the UNRWA employees are on strike and this have led to the closure of schools and clinics," the 14-year-old said. "This affects me too. It affects my education. And look at the trash all over the place," he said, referring to the mounds of trash filling the camp's narrow alleyways, or stacked next to its dilapidated walls. UN workers also operate the health facilities, and those too have been shut down since the strike started.
The demonstrations come amid an economic crisis that has severely affected the UN agency. Funds have dwindled as aid has been diverted to those affected by the Syrian civil war next door. The UN has said donor countries are taking into consideration the harsh consequences of the Syrian crisis when prioritising the allotment of funds.
According to the UN, 51,000 students have not been able to attend school in the camps because of the employee strike. Some 132,000 people have also been adversely affected by the closure of 42 health clinics in the West Bank, with an average of more than 5,000 patients a day unable to receive medical care as a result. In addition to the cessation of services in the camps, more than 20 employees of the UNRWA job creation programme are on hunger strikes to protest against the end of their short-term contracts.
In the camps, some have voiced fears that UNRWA's financial setbacks were due to political reasons. "Donor countries are trying to politicise this institution... to take away funds so UNRWA can eventually disintegrate," claimed Taha Al Bis, who heads the office of the Refugee Popular Committees, which represents the camp's residents. "As long as there is no just and fair solution to the refugee issue, then we are interested in seeing UNRWA and its services continue." Some 4,400 Palestinians are employed in the West Bank's 19 camps to help more than 740,000 refugees there.
Since the strike began, the camp's local committees have been organising trash collection, but have been unable to meet the demands of the entire camp. "Trash has not been collected and it's now stacked up in mounds," pointed out Mohammed Eliyan, the head of the West Bank Refugees' Affairs Office at the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). "The popular committees can no longer collect this insane amount of garbage."
Since the UN workers' union announced the strike, the PA has not intervened at all and did not exercise any pressure on any party.
The UNRWA has said there is no justification for a pay increase at a time when the agency is facing a difficult financial situation. Raising salaries "would mean risking the continuity of receiving future support from donor countries, which are already facing financial trouble in their capitals", said Felipe Sanchez, director of the UNRWA's operations in the West Bank.
Sanchez said the salaries of UNRWA's employees are 21.6 per cent higher than those of public-sector employees in the West Bank. The UN refugee agency pegs its wages to those paid in the host country. In the case of the Palestinian territories, it sets wages based on those paid by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Two years ago, Sanchez added, there was a six percent increase on salaries, in addition to the 2.3 percent automatic annual raise based on individual performance.
The workers' strike comes at a time when unemployment is about 20 percent in the West Bank and 32 percent in the Gaza Strip. Even the Palestinian public sector has been reeling from the effects of an economic crisis brought about by soaring prices and the PA's inability to pay its employees regularly. The PA's employees have called for a general strike this week over low wages.
Nonetheless, some in Al Amari blamed the PA for not doing more to help with the UN crisis. "The PA is also responsible for the refugees in the camps," Taha Al Bis said. "Since the UN workers' union announced the strike, the PA has not intervened at all and did not exercise any pressure on any party." He added that the PA was also responsible for stepping in and providing services at a time when UN education and health facilities were closed.
"Everyone has to assume responsibility, even the government, even the presidency," Eliyan said. "There is an urgent need to solve the crisis. We don't want things to come down to this. We don't need want these clashes and escalations," he added, referring to the clashes in nearby Jalazon camp, which erupted between PA security forces and young Palestinians who tried to block roads to draw attention to the worker's grievances. Policemen used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the rioters, who in turn threw rocks. Forty policemen and four protesters were injured during the clashes.
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