UN foreign workers pulled from Gaza over security concerns

UNRWA says some foreign staff withdrawn from Gaza due to security risks amid protests over job cuts.

    A Palestinian demonstrator holds a UN flag during a rally against a US decision to cut funding to UNRWA [File: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]
    A Palestinian demonstrator holds a UN flag during a rally against a US decision to cut funding to UNRWA [File: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

    The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Monday it was temporarily withdrawing some foreign staff from the Gaza Strip following security concerns linked to job cuts in the coastal enclave.

    In a statement, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said it has "decided to temporarily withdraw part of its international staff from Gaza following a series of worrying security incidents affecting its personnel in the strip."

    A source with the agency said around 10 staff members crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip on Monday, amid reports of harassment in relation to job cuts.

    An UNRWA source said a protest was held Monday outside a Gaza City hotel where agency officials were meeting.

    The agency's statement said that "earlier today, a number of staff were harassed and prevented from carrying out their duties".

    "Some of these actions have specifically targeted the UNRWA management in Gaza," it said.

    Hani al-Omari, a local UNRWA employee, told Reuters news agency that dozens of people whose jobs were recently cut or reduced had gathered outside a hotel where they heard UNRWA international staff were meeting, some surrounding the vehicle of one of them.

    "We wanted to send a message to them that they will not be comfortable while they plan to execute us by cutting our jobs,” al-Omari said.

    UNRWA in its statement called on Gaza authorities to "provide effective protection to its employees and facilities".

    Gaza is controlled by the Hamas movement.

    Eyad al-Bozom, spokesman for the Hamas-led interior ministry in Gaza, said the ministry was committed to the protection of UNRWA's staff and facilities.

    "The protection measures did not change, but due to the recent job reductions in the Gaza Strip, there has been anger among the employees. We will not let these protests develop and we will not allow any attacks against employees or facilities,” he said.

    Funding withdrawn

    In August, the United States announced it would stop funding the UN body, which services five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Most of the refugees are descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians who were forcibly displaced from their homes by Zionist paramilitaries in 1948.

    US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called UNRWA an "irredeemably flawed operation."

    The US had been the agency's largest contributor by far, providing it with $350m annually - roughly a quarter of its overall budget.

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    The Trump administration's decision to cancel all aid to the agency has led to job cuts at UNRWA programmes across the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    According to the UNRWA employees' union, funding cuts have forced the agency to close its mental health programme, which provided direct services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and had employed about 430 people.

    Palestinians have protested the cuts on a near-daily basis since they were announced, saying that the UN has a responsibility to act and ensure that operations continue.

    Last week, tens of thousands of students enrolled in UNRWA schools in the occupied West Bank went on strike, citing their concern over whether their schools would have enough funds to function until the end of the academic year.

    On Monday, dozens of Palestinians staged a rally outside the office of the UN refugee agency in occupied East Jerusalem.

    Among the leading participants were Archbishop Atallah Hanna and Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, an imam of al-Aqsa Mosque.

    The protesters handed over a message to the UNRWA operations director, in which they "highlighted the UN responsibility and historic role towards the Palestinian issue".

    The message cited UN General Assembly resolution 302 that calls for the provision of services to refugees by UNRWA until reaching a just settlement to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

    Participants also appealed to international donors to increase their funding to the UN refugee agency "to guarantee UNRWA to continue to do its role".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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