UNRWA evacuates officials from Gaza to Israel
Palestinian refugees agency transfers 10 of its international senior employees from the strip to Israeli territory via Erez crossing on Monday following harassment and threats made by the agency's local staff in Gaza in light of US fund cuts and subsequent layoff plans.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had evacuated 10 of its international senior employees from Gaza to Israel on Monday, after they were threatened and harassed by UNRWA's disgruntled local Palestinian staff following the agency's announcement to cut more than 250 jobs.
The agency's senior officials were rescued and transferred to Israeli territory via the Erez crossing—which remained closed throughout the Jewish holidays but was re-opened by the Israeli security officials following an official request from UNRWA.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories issued an official statement, confirming the incident.
"A number of foreign UNRWA employees have been evacuated from the Gaza Strip to Israel. This is due to the tensions as a result of the financial crisis UNRWA is facing and subsequent concern for the safety of its foreign staff,” stressed the statement.
“The Hamas terrorist organization did not protect the agency's staff from the violence directed against them,” the statement concluded.
UNRWA's employees launched a general strike Monday in protest of the agency's decision to fire 100 UNRWA workers in Gaza.
In addition to the demonstrations held in front of UNRWA headquarters, employees blocked the entrance to the Al Deira Hotel in Gaza while Matthias Schmale, the agency's Gaza Director met with the agency's security officer.
Hamas security forces arrived at the hotel's entrance to prevent the demonstrators from breaking into the hotel.
The protesters lay under the wheels of Schmale's car and blocked it with their bodies.
In light of the recent escalation in Hamas-led border violence and due to growing concern for the welfare of the agency's international staff, UNRWA decided to evacuate the employees from the strip.
According to reports, the agency's director and his deputy are still inside Gaza, but, according to various sources, they might be evacuated later on Monday.
Two months ago, it had been announced that 154 UNRWA employees from the West Bank and 113 from Gaza are expected to be laid off following the US decision to withhold hundreds of millions in aid.
The decision to dismiss the employees was known several weeks after UNRWA's Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, announced that the budget allocated to the West Bank and Gaza Strip had expired in June and that he had authorized taking budget advances to allow UNRWA to continue its normal functioning until the end of July.
In August, the US announced a halt in its aid to UNRWA, calling it an "irredeemably flawed operation", a decision that further heightened tensions between the Palestinian leadership and US President Donald Trump's administration.
UNRWA provides services to about 5 million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. Most are descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel's creation.
The growing refugee count was cited by Washington, UNRWA's biggest donor, in its decision to withhold funding.
Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, has been critical of the UN's count of Palestinian refugees. She has also questioned the "right of return" to Israel, claimed by the Palestinians as part of any eventual peace settlement.
"When you don't tackle the underlying causes of conflict, that's when you get 70 years of UNRWA, it's not UNRWA that perpetuates itself, it's because the refugee community is still there waiting for a political solution to address its situation," Krähenbühl said.
The Trump administration has taken a number of unprecedented actions that have upset the Palestinians, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a reversal of longtime US policy. It led to the Palestinian leadership boycotting Washington's peace efforts being led by Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law.
Krähenbühl compared the Palestinian refugee "right of return" issue with those of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar who have fled into Bangladesh and the return of Bosnian Muslim refugees to areas under Serb control in the 1990s.
"So the only question one should ask is why should Palestine refugees be the one community where this question is not a justified question," Krähenbühl stated.
UNRWA leadership and Palestinian officials say its presence is necessary until a permanent solution can be found for the refugees.
The local Palestinian staff has been waging a violent fight against the layoff plans for several months.Two months ago they blocked the UNRWA headquarters in the Gaza Strip, demanding the dismissal of the agency’s director at the Gaza branch.
Several employees fainted and needed hospitalization after they had received received dismissal letters. Others went as far as to douse themselves in gasoline in an attempt to set themselves on fire. However their colleagues intervened at the last minute and prevented a greater tragedy.