UNRWA job cuts in Gaza ‘a massacre for employees’

Gaza employees shocked at UN agency job suspensions, leaving many facing an uncertain future.

Gaza UNRWA protests
A woman holds a sign reading 'We trust you with our rights, please do not rob them' during a demonstration by UNRWA employees [Mahmud Hams/AFP]

Raffat Abu Hashim was working in his office at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) branch in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, when he received the dreaded email from the staff portal.

His contract will not be renewed when it ends in December.

“I never imagined this would happen to me,” the 53-year-old father of six told Al Jazeera.

“I’ve served in UNRWA for 32 years, when I was hired in January 1987 as an emergency clerk. I’m deeply shocked,” he said, mopping up beads of sweat on his forehead.

Abu Hashim didn’t tell his family – who depend on him as the sole breadwinner – that he was facing impending unemployment.

“I think of them, of my children who are in school and university, and about the loans I owe the bank, and other financial commitments,” he said.

“How can I tell them that I won’t have a job anymore? My work is the backbone in their life.”

Suspension of UNRWA contracts

The US government announced at the beginning of the year it would slash its funding of $365m to $65m, after President Donald Trump accused the Palestinians of being ungrateful for the millions of dollars in aid.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted, a month after his controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that led the Palestinian Authority to condemn the US as no longer being an impartial peace broker.

“With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

More than half of Gaza’s two million population is dependent on aid from UNRWA, which offered support for seven decades in food supply, healthcare, social services, employment and access to education.

Currently, the blockaded strip suffers from a 44 percent unemployment rate. Last Wednesday, the agency fired a further 113 employees, all because of the United States’ 80 percent budget cut.

Furthermore, UNRWA announced the contracts of 1,000 of its employees in the Gaza Strip – Abu Hashim among them – will not have their contracts renewed. This includes the termination of the mental health programme, which employs 430 people.

More than half of Gaza's two million population is dependent on aid from UNRWA [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera]
More than half of Gaza’s two million population is dependent on aid from UNRWA [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera]

An open-ended protest has been held since that day at the agency’s headquarters in Gaza City to protest the job cuts.

“This is a massacre against the employees,” Amal al-Batsh, deputy chairman of the UNRWA’S staff union, told Al Jazeera. “The solution to the crisis should not be at the expense of the staff providing services to the tens of thousands of refugees in the Gaza Strip.”

Batsh said the “unjust decisions” will negatively impact all services provided to refugees and badly affect employees and their families, including their psychological state, adding to the deteriorating living conditions in Gaza.

“It’s a political issue rather than a financial one,” Batsh said. “We’ve suggested a number of solutions but they were rejected by the UNRWA administration. This evidence of a threat to the whole refugees’ issue and the presence of UNRWA and its services in the Gaza Strip.”

“We will escalate our protests until UNRWA reverses its decision,” she added.

‘Pain and sadness’

Gaza’s UNRWA employees, who number about 13,000, were stunned upon hearing of the job suspensions, many of whom are the sole providers for their families. One man attempted to set himself on fire outside the headquarters in Gaza City, but was stopped by his colleagues.

Mona al-Qishawi, 52, has worked as a mental health counsellor in a UNRWA medical centre for the past two years in Gaza City, and was among the protesters at the sit-in.

“During the past months, there were assurances from the agency’s administration that they would offer us fixed contracts by January. Instead, we received letters putting us on part-time jobs with half of the salary, before ending our service by December,” she told Al Jazeera.

Qishawi paused, trying to fight back tears. “I’m a widow – my husband died eight years ago. Who is responsible for my six children,” she said. “Two of them are studying in Greece and I have to send them money on a regular basis.

“We live in a rented apartment and I have many other expenses that I can barely cover with a full salary, so how can I deal now with the new job cuts?”

Her colleague Huwaida al-Ghoul heaved a big sigh.

“I can’t express the amount of pain and sadness in my heart,” the 43-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I spent 16 years working and gave my best to my job.”

Ghoul, who has five children, is the main source of income for her family as her husband, who used to work as a labourer in Israel, has been unemployed since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000.

Huwaida al-Ghoul holds up her medical report during a protest at UNRWA's headquarters in Gaza [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera]
Huwaida al-Ghoul holds up her medical report during a protest at UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza [Maram Humaid/Al Jazeera]

One of her children has asthma and a lung ailment, which has resulted in medical expenses. She is also paying off a bank loan.

“With the new decision, I’m going to be put in prison for not being able to pay for the rest of the loan,” she said, sobbing.

She then took a medical report out of her bag. “Upon hearing the news on Wednesday, I had a breakdown and transferred to hospital.

“I spent the whole day crying at home with my kids around trying to comfort me. How could I tell my six-year-old child that I would not be able to make a living for him anymore?”

Replacing the Palestinian cause

Mohsen Abu Ramadan, an economic analyst in Gaza, said UNRWA launched a new policy that only entrenches the worsening situation in the Gaza Strip, including the 11-year siege, extreme poverty, and high unemployment.

“UNRWA and many international organisations, especially those funded by the US in Gaza, are moving towards one direction, which is to replace the Palestinian cause – an end to the Israeli occupation and siege and the right of return for refugees – with a humanitarian agenda,” Abu Mohsen said.

“It is an attempt to apply the ‘economic peace’ theory instead of the Palestinian national solutions,” he continued.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first called for this policy in the 1990s, Abu Mohsen said, and it is backed by the Trump administration, spearheaded by his special adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” or Middle East peace plan.

Abu Mohsen explained the Gaza Strip is “the target of economic peace” as it represents the essence of the Palestinian cause, and hence fertile ground to implement Kushner’s plan through the launch of alleged humanitarian projects.

“What is a point of concern is why the UNRWA’s administration chose to implement these desperate decisions, which adapts to the direction of the ‘deal of the century’, instead of resisting it,” he said.

“UNRWA is supposed to make a greater effort to counter the budget cuts by holding more donor conferences, and not choosing to sacrifice its staff and services.”

Raffat Abu Hashim vowed the protests will continue until UNRWA retracts its moves, and to “review these unfair measures against the agency’s staff in Gaza”.

He has not informed his family that he will be out of a job in December, and even assured them his name was not among the 1,000 employees who received the termination letter.

“Is it reasonable for a humanitarian aid agency to treat us this way?” he asked.

Source: Al Jazeera