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UNRWA employees strike in Gaza as protests held in West Bank

Jan. 5, 2014 6:22 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 7, 2014 12:57 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Palestinian employees of the UN agency for Palestine refugees on Sunday went on strike in Gaza to protest the agency's dismissal of workers and its refusal to increase salaries.

The UNRWA teachers' union condemned the agency's recent termination of employees, specifically those who worked in development programs, a union official said at a press conference.

Mahmoud Hamdan added that employees were calling for a fixed exchange rate to be applied to their basic salary to a assure a steady income.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian workers' union said in a statement that the crisis in Gaza was partially due to UNRWA's policies, without elaborating.

Other protest measures may be taken in the near future, the statement said.

In response to the strike, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement that the agency's "staff are paid over twenty per cent above the equivalent salaries in the Palestinian Authority. This is in accordance with our salary policy, which aims to keep our staff paid at the same rate or above PA equivalent."

An across-the-board pay increases are "unjustifiable," Gunness said.

"Have the people of Gaza not suffered enough because of the Israeli blockade and the destruction of the tunnels from Egypt without being further punished by the UNRWA unions withholding services?"

Also Sunday, protests were launched in the West Bank in solidarity with Gaza's UNRWA strike.

The Popular Committee for Refugees in Hebron organized a demonstration on Ein Sarah Street, where hundreds of participants marched holding signs in support of the UNRWA workers' demands.

"We fear that the agency might stray from its original role, which is to support all Palestinian refugees," said committee spokesman Bassam Shweiki.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, residents of al-Azza refugee camp briefly closed a main road and held signs protesting against UNRWA.

Locals said UNRWA schools had been closed for over a month, and that the agency had seriously limited services to the camp.

"The agency has to understand that it's responsible for our situation," a shop owner who was present at the protest told Ma'an.

Palestinian UNRWA workers are frustrated that their salaries are "much less" than international workers, he said.

He said even larger protests would be held on Monday.

The strike in Gaza and protests in the West Bank came after a number of Palestinians went on hunger strike against UNRWA in recent days.

Three employees were taken to the hospital for treatment after six days of hunger striking, an UNRWA employee told Ma'an Thursday.

The hunger strikes -- carried out by various residents of Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus -- were in protest of UNRWA's layoff of 55 employees in late 2013.

Gunness told Ma'an at the time that the employees who were on hunger strike were temporary employees whose contracts were not renewed. The funding that provided those employees with salaries had been cut from $40 million to $25 million, he said.

UNRWA advertised 27 job openings after the layoffs took place, but "those on hunger strike did not apply," Gunness said.

The employees were aware that their positions were "never permanent. ... It seems a bit strange to go on hunger strike for that reason."

UNRWA is the UN agency originally set up in 1949 to ensure relief and development for the Palestinian refugees expelled from what became the State of Israel in 1948.

Today, the agency provides health care, education, social services, and other forms of aid to nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees.

Correction: This report previously said that the employee layoffs had occurred in late 2009. In fact, they occurred in late 2013.
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