LABOUR leaders at Palestinian refugee camps on Tuesday shut down all UNRWA sub-offices in the West Bank in protest at the dismissal of 130 employees and reductions of services.
Munthir Amira, director of the youth centre of Aida refugee camp, said that ‘it is time that UNRWA’s administration realise that the plight of Palestinian refugees can’t be a political trade or an opportunity for Western employees to seek livelihood.’
In al-Jalazoun refugee camp near Ramallah, young men closed the UNRWA office protesting at the reduction of services, according to a member of the local popular committee.
He highlighted that the decision to discharge 130 employees would result in more reductions.
In the southern West Bank’s al-Arrub camp, the popular committee installed a sit-in tent after they closed the local UNRWA office.
‘We will go on with our protests until UNRWA retracts the unjust procedures against us,’ said Ahmad Abu Khayran, head of the popular committee.
In al-Amari, in the central West Bank, local popular committees also closed the UNRWA office, and similar protests were held in Balata camp in the north.
The protests came days after popular committees in the West Bank wrote a letter to the director of UNRWA operations, Felipe Sanchez, asking him to reverse the decision to discharge 130 employees, and to bring an end to what protesters say is a reduction in services.
‘The UNRWA policy in the West Bank became unacceptable.
‘Reductions affect only the services, while the high-ranking executives who receive very high salaries still enjoy privileges which ministers in rich countries do not enjoy,’ said Imad Abu Sunbul, a spokesman for the West Bank refugee camps.
‘If UNRWA is really having a budget deficit, let them reduce expenses on the high-ranking executives whose salaries have not been affected by the reductions which started more than 10 years ago.
‘It is unbelievable that a sick refugee pays 40 per cent of his healthcare costs, while foreign employees enjoy countless privileges including shopping, trips and five-star hotels across the Middle East at the expense of the refugees.’
Despite the end of an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, the humanitarian situation there remains dire, says the representative of the World Food Programme (WFP) in the occupied Palestinian territory.
‘There is a misconception that because there is a period of calm, we can start thinking about a development process, which is very difficult to do when they are under occupation,’ Pablo Recalde said at a press conference in Dubai on 9th December.
‘This latest operation has brought back to people’s consciousness that we need to be ready and we need to maintain assistance,’ he separately told IRIN, the UN’s press agency.
‘These kinds of flare-ups of violence are now systemic. Up until there is a permanent solution to the problem of the Palestinian people, you will have these ups and downs.’
While around 1,000 families lost their homes during eight days of air strikes on Gaza in November, Recalde said there had been no major decrease in food security in Gaza.
Even in normal times, 40 per cent of Gazans do not have regular access to food and are dependent on aid to survive, he said.
Entrance to and exit from Gaza – for its 1.6 million inhabitants, as well as for trade and aid – are controlled by neighbours Egypt and Israel.
WFP requires $2 million a month for its food programmes in Gaza; but its funding has dropped by around one-third since last year.
When Jaber Abu Rjaila heard about the recent ceasefire agreement in Gaza, he rushed back to his farmland – for the first time in more than 10 years.
‘We have been farmers for generations. It’s our life and I’m very glad that we are back here now freely working,’ he said. ‘I’ve been longing for this moment.’
His farmland lies in the ‘access-denied’ and buffer zone areas close to the Israeli-built barrier, but the recent ceasefire agreement holds out the promise of an easing of naval and land controls at the border.
Oxfam says the five-year blockade by Israel has ‘devastated Gaza’s farming and fishing industries’ leading to the closure of nearly 60 per cent of Gaza’s businesses, according to a new briefing paper published this month.
Israel imposed the blockade, it says, for security reasons.
Abu Rjaila has ambitions to plant tomatoes, parsley and zucchini for sale, and to help feed his 14-member family. But he knows he is not in the clear yet.
Israeli soldiers often use their loudspeakers to tell him to keep tens of metres from the border – and he says he still worries about ‘random shooting, sudden Israeli incursions, and unexploded shells’.
Abu Rjaila’s house and land are about 450 metres from the border in eastern Khan Younis, where he owns a seven-hectare farm on some of the most fertile land in Gaza.
After the ceasefire was introduced on November 21, bringing an end to the Israeli bombardment and the firing of rockets into Israel, hundreds of Palestinians who own houses and land in these areas returned.
Officials in Gaza say the Israelis agreed to ease travel and economic restrictions, although the returning farmers faced immediate warnings from Israeli forces saying ‘Go away’ and ‘Go back’, often accompanied by warning shots.
Palestinian medical sources said one Palestinian was killed and over 20 injured by Israeli gunfire in the area just two days after the ceasefire, when a group including farmers visited land close to the fence.
The deputy minister of agriculture in Gaza, Ibrahim Al Qedra, said that the easing of restrictions on the 5,000 hectares in the buffer zone would reduce humanitarian needs in Gaza.
‘We need to reach our border areas and lift the buffer zone restrictions to let people return to their lands, live in their houses, and farm their lands freely – we need to restore our food security.’