'Mutiny' at UN Palestinian agency in Gaza after job cuts

'Mutiny' at UN Palestinian agency in Gaza after job cuts
Staff are angry at redundancies and a scaling back of operations after the Trump administration pulled $300 million in annual funding.
3 min read
09 August, 2018
UNRWA staff stage a protest against the agency's decision to lay off 250 staff [Getty]

Workers have seized partial control of the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, its head said Wednesday, accusing their union of "mutiny" over job cuts.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) announced last month more than 250 staff in Gaza and the occupied West Bank would lose their jobs, after a $300 million cut in annual funding from the United States. 

The redundancies have prompted daily protests by the agency's labour union in the enclave, which UNRWA's Gaza head said have led to security concerns. 

"They have taken over the compound where my office and other offices are," said Matthias Schmale.

The agency's Gaza chief admitted UNRWA does not have full control over the site, in Gaza City, explaining he has not been able to work from his own office for more than two weeks.

"I am the captain of the ship which has 13,000 sailors on it and they have basically thrown me off the bridge and consigned me to my captain's quarters," he told AFP, referring to the number of employees in Gaza.

UNRWA provides support for more than three million Palestinians across the Middle East, including the majority of Gaza's two million residents.

It operates more than 200 schools in the enclave, which may not open at the start of the academic year without new funding and an end to the labour dispute. 

Schmale accused the labour union of multiple incidents of "threatening and intimidating other fellow Palestinian staff. For me that crosses a red line."

"I am very concerned about the safety and security of my Palestinian colleagues," he added.

The union denied all allegations of intimidation and is due to continue demonstrating, with a general strike expected in the coming days unless a deal is reached.

"This is a peaceful and safe sit-in inside the regional headquarters of UNRWA to demand (employees') right to be able to continue their work," Amir al-Mishal, head of the UNRWA employee union in Gaza, told AFP.

He said some of those affected by the cuts had been working for the agency for more than 30 years and they were seeking dialogue with the management.

Hamas visits

On Wednesday the protest inside the UNRWA compound was visited by Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas member, who pledged his Islamist movement's full support for protesters, an AFP correspondent said.

Schmale was unaware that Zahar had been inside the compound, saying any visit by a figure from Hamas - considered a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union - was forbidden as it breaches the UN's impartiality rules.

A small number of employees have begun a hunger strike against the cuts outside Schmale's office, seeking to force management to reverse course.

Ismail al-Talaa, who worked in psychological support in a school, said he was on his fourth day without food.

He compared his salary of around $1,000 a month with what he called the huge incomes and benefits earned by Schmale and other senior UNRWA leaders, who are usually internationals.

The funding crisis was sparked in January by the United States, traditionally the largest donor to UNRWA, cutting its annual grant from $360 million to just $60 million.