Thousands of Palestinian schoolchildren from refugee camps across the occupied West Bank went on strike, protesting US cuts to the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.
More than 130,000 schoolchildren and refugee residents in the West Bank participated in the protests, according to Imad al-Din Ishtewi, the coordinator for “Sana’oud,” the national committee for the return of refugees.
“Our people categorically reject the unjust American decisions,” he told local news agency Maan. “We have begun to mobilise momentum through popular [protest] in order to uphold our inalienable rights of return and the right to self-determination.”
In August, the US government announced it would no longer fund the United Nations Relief Works and Agency (UNRWA), sparking a funding crisis.
UNRWA provides benefits and services – such as schooling, healthcare, social services, and food aid – to five million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
The US had been UNRWA’s largest contributor by far, providing it with $350m annually – roughly a quarter of its overall budget.
Speaking from a student protest in the Jalazone refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said that the overlying message from the protesters is that “dignity is priceless”.
“What they are saying is that the US needs to refund those UNRWA programmes that allow schools like this to function,” he said.
“These people are very worried that their school does not have enough funding to take them to the end of the month, never mind to the end of the academic term.
“They are worried that their school will have to shut down, and it’s the case of the schools like this across the occupied West Bank where they simply don’t know where the money is going to come from.”
UNRWA, he continued, has been looking to other donors to try to make up the shortfall in funding, but has not been successful so far.
“UNRWA simply doesn’t know where the money is going to come from,” Khan said. “They do say they have some money to be able to keep some programmes open, although which ones they are they don’t really know.”
The protests followed similar rallies in the Gaza Strip, where on Monday, the UNRWA employees’ union went on strike to protest against job losses and US funding cuts. More than 250 UNRWA schools, as well as medical centres and food aid distribution points, were shut down for the day.
Union officials said that the contracts of dozens of engineers have been terminated by UNRWA in recent months.
The funding cuts have also forced the agency to close its mental health programme, which had provided direct services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and had employed about 430 people.