January 15, 2014 6:32 pm

Officials strive to end West Bank strikes over UN agency pay

Palestinian and UN officials are working to contain unrest in refugee camps in the West Bank in which protesters have burned tyres and blocked roads in several impromptu riots over the past week.

Rami Hamdallah, Palestinian prime minister, met camp and union officials on Wednesday in a bid to defuse a crisis caused by a month-and-a-half-long strike by about 4,500 employees of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees displaced after the founding of Israel in 1948. The strike has caused schools to close and disrupted other services such as healthcare and rubbish collection for the 750,000 refugees who live in the West Bank.

UNRWA which, like other UN agencies, relies on donations to fund its activities, says it has a shortfall of $65m in its core $675m budget for 2014. It has introduced austerity and budget cuts across the agency.

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Its striking employees in the West Bank are demanding a 10 per cent pay rise to bring their wages in line with those paid to UNRWA staff in the Gaza Strip. They are also calling for reinstatement of 55 staff sacked last year.

In recent days, large groups of youths blocked the main road in the Jalazoun refugee camp north of Ramallah and roads at other camps in the city. To press their demands, some members of UNRWA’s staff have also gone on hunger strike, a common protest tactic among Palestinian prisoners serving sentences in Israeli jails.

Earth scorched by recent fires marks the side of the main road at the Jalazoun camp, which houses 15,000 people. The camp’s two schools are closed, and children are on the streets; rubbish is piling up uncollected; and the one health clinic has suspended all services except polio vaccinations for children aged five and under.

The strike began on December 3, leaving the inhabitants without many services during a snowstorm that blanketed the region shortly after.

“We are asking the [Palestinian] president and prime minister and UNRWA to find a solution for the strike because the consequences are terrible and we feel it,” said Mahmoud Mubarak, head of the “popular committee” representing residents of Jalazoun camp.

The discontent is a worry for Palestinian officials and Israel, given the central role that children and young people there played in the two intifadas, or Palestinian uprisings against Israeli rule.

Humanitarian budgets have been substantially used to respond to Syria and some of our emergency programmes . . . have consequently suffered underfunding

- Chris Gunness, spokesman, UNRWA

Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper, in a story on Wednesday remarking on a recent upsurge of unrest, cited unnamed sources in Israel’s central military command who believe “it is clear that the Palestinian Authority is afraid to deal with the growing pockets of anarchy in the refugee camps”.

The strike has cast a spotlight on UNRWA which, despite its chronic funding problems, provides “state-like services” for about 4m Palestinian refugees across the region, including in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In recent days, UNRWA has raised the alarm about a humanitarian crisis at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, including food and water shortages and a reported rise of deaths of women in childbirth.

In the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories UNRWA is both a leading provider of public services and a major employer in its own right.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, said the agency was making progress in broadening its donor base from the Gulf and Brics [Brazil, Russia, India and China], but their contributions have increased at a slower pace than its costs, which go up by $10m to $15m per year.

“Humanitarian budgets have been substantially used to respond to Syria and some of our emergency programmes, for example in Gaza, have consequently suffered underfunding,” he said.

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