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Protests in Bethlehem as UNRWA hunger striker taken to hospital

Jan. 6, 2014 8:38 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 7, 2014 5:15 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Demonstrations were held on Monday for the second day in a row in Bethlehem in protest against policies of the UN's Palestine refugee agency as one of 27 hunger strikers was taken to the hospital.

An UNRWA employee was taken to the hospital as five local employees continued their hunger strike for the fifth day running in protest of the termination of their contracts.

Osama al-Qawasmeh was taken to hospital as Adel Mohammad Salameh, Fadi al-Ayubi, Ishaq Hujaij, Bilal Adileh, who were among 55 people whose contracts were terminated, continued their hunger strike in a protest tent near the UNRWA headquarters in Sheik Jarrah in Jerusalem, a Ma'an reporter said.

They held signs saying "the termination of the contracts of 50 employees is a great crime," "UNRWA employees union is the first line of defense for the issues of refugees," and "No to the systematic reductions policy," among others.

The hunger strikers called for their reinstatement at their places of work and demanded their full rights.

A member of the UNRWA Arab employees' union Ibrahim Hamdan said that "the UNRWA administration terminated the contracts of the hunger strikers after 10-12 years of employment."

"These employees must be given fixed contracts, and not dismissed," he said.

He added that the Palestinian Authority and lawmakers had previously intervened to find a resolution but that the UNRWA has so far been "stubborn" on its position.

There are 27 UNRWA employees on hunger strike in the West Bank, from 55 whose contracts were terminated, and Hamdan said the UNRWA is responsible for their health.

Gunness told Ma'an on Thursday 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."

Separately, community institutions, local activist committees, and Fatah members in Aida and Azza refugee camps in Bethlehem organized a demonstration in support of hunger strikers against the agency, a day after protesters blocked roads at Azza camp.

The protest was also in solidarity with the strike by local employees of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip.

Samir Atta, the director of the popular committees in Aida, said that the refugee camps will stand by UNRWA employees until their demands are met and services are restored to normal.

Abdul Fatah Abu Srour, the director of Al-Ruwad Association, said that the well-being and rights of refugees are a priority for local institutions in the refugee camps.

This protest shows their rejection of the UNRWA policies that aim to reduce services, he added.

The demonstration started from the center of Aida camp on Bethlehem's northern edge and led throughout Bethlehem.

They also held a 10-minute sit-in in front of the UNRWA office at the busy Bab al-Zqaq junction.

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 on 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.

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.

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