Reportage. The UN agency in charge of helping Palestinian refugees has been gutted by the Trump administration. The resulting layoffs have sparked protests and anger, as well as acts of desperation.

UNRWA cuts push Gazans to the streets and, for some, to hopelessness

“We are tired of being the ones to pay because of a funding cut. The UNRWA must find a solution that doesn’t leave so many people out of work.” It’s terribly hot in Gaza. Amir al-Miss’hal, from the Palestinian UNRWA workers’ union, is sweating profusely and wiping his brow while answering questions from reporters. But he still has enough energy to shout his anger loudly against the UN agency’s decision to let go of 1,000 workers on temporary contracts—an agency which for almost 70 years has been assisting the more than five million Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Just a few days ago, Gaza was about to suffer under another Israeli military offensive. The danger has been averted for now, thanks to a fragile ceasefire agreement reached by Israel and the Hamas Islamist movement.

But the fear of a new war is just one of the problems Gaza is facing. The problems are multiplying more and more, and go beyond the shortage of fuel and electricity and the lack of drinking water. “The Palestinians are all suffering everywhere, but here in Gaza we are close to collapse,” Amir al-Miss’hal says. “That is why it is absurd to put hundreds of people and their families out on the streets overnight. People are desperate. So [the agency’s top management] have a duty to fill this hole.”

Behind him, at the entrance to the UNRWA headquarters, 100 people, mostly women, were chanting slogans against everyone: Israel, Trump, the United Nations, the West, the Arab world that has forgotten about the Palestinians. And there were quite a few slogans against the “Deal of the Century,” the alleged US “peace plan” of which there have been rumors for a year now, but which Washington has not dared to put forward. It is rumored to show blatant bias in favor of the Israeli side, and it has already been flatly rejected by the Palestinians—even President Mahmoud Abbas has claimed that he managed to sink it for good.

Wednesday’s protest by the Palestinians did not show signs of rage, despite the fact that it was the day that the dismissal letters were delivered. But things were very different on Monday, when the fired workers had blocked all access to the UNRWA buildings, forcing the agency’s director of operations in Gaza, Matthias Shamali, to barricade himself in his office for 14 hours, while outside the police were barely able to restrain the demonstrators. They were calling for the permanent employees of the agency to join them in their struggle, because sooner or later they would also find themselves out of work.

The UNRWA has said repeatedly that they have no choice, because of a budget deficit of about $200 million, the result of a reduction in international donations. They have given reassurances that they will keep providing the main services they offer to Palestinian refugees, but will have to cut some programs in the West Bank and Gaza. The agency’s spokesperson, Sami Mshasha, explained that the hole in the agency’s budget is, in particular, the result of the cancelling of US funding for the UNRWA, announced by the Trump administration in retaliation for the UN condemnation of the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, announced by the American president in December.

“The donations from the United States for emergency programs [about $100 million a year] no longer exist, and this has forced the UNRWA to take drastic measures,” Mshasha explained, confirming that at the end of July the workers on temporary contracts will be let go, and that in the coming months the agency will have to stop the distribution of food stamps, its mental health program and the activities of mobile clinics.

The United States has cut its aid for the UNRWA by a total of $300 million per year, and yet, just the other day, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, put the blame on the Arab countries and the rest of the international community, which, she claimed, don’t do enough for the Palestinians. She was conspicuously quiet about the cuts in US aid, which have brought the UNRWA to its knees and have led to cuts in the services it provides for refugees. It is no surprise that desperation now reigns on the streets of Gaza.

Three days ago, in Jabaliya, Ahmed Abu Tahun, a 32-year-old street vendor and father of five, tried to take his own life by setting himself on fire. He is now in the hospital in very serious condition, with only the family being allowed to visit him. His father told us the reasons behind his gesture.

“Ahmad was doing all he could to support his family,” he said. “There is no work here, everything has stopped, Gaza is closed. He earned a bit by selling toys and sweets in front of a children’s clinic. It was little money, but enough to feed his children. So, when some policemen ordered him to move his stall elsewhere, he fell apart, and he set himself on fire.”

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