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UN Agency, Worried About Safety, Pulls Some International Staff Out of Gaza

FILE - Palestinian employees of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a protest against job cuts by UNRWA, in Gaza City Sept. 19, 2018.
FILE - Palestinian employees of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a protest against job cuts by UNRWA, in Gaza City Sept. 19, 2018.

The United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees withdrew some of its international staff from the Gaza Strip on Monday, saying it was concerned for their safety, a statement from the organization said.

Anger has mounted in Gaza over the past few weeks among Palestinian employees of UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). Facing a financial crisis, the organization has had to cut jobs in Gaza, sparking strikes and protests.

“UNRWA today decided to temporarily withdraw part of its international staff from Gaza following a series of worrying security incidents affecting its personnel in the Strip,” the agency said.

UNRWA said its director of operations and other international staff would remain in Gaza and that its operations continue there. A source in Gaza said 13 international staff were withdrawn and six more remained in the Strip.

“Earlier today, a number of staff were harassed and prevented from carrying out their duties by individuals protesting recent measures resulting from UNRWA’s challenging financial situation,” the statement said.

Hani al-Omari, a local UNRWA employee, told Reuters that dozens of people whose jobs were recently cut or reduced had gathered outside a hotel where they heard UNRWA international staff were meeting, some surrounding the vehicle of one of them.

“We wanted to send a message to them that they will not be comfortable while they plan to execute us by cutting our jobs,” al-Omari said.

UNRWA in its statement called on Gaza authorities to “provide effective protection to its employees and facilities”.

Gaza is controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement.

Eyad al-Bozom, spokesman for the Hamas-led interior ministry in Gaza, said the ministry was committed to the protection of UNRWA’s staff and facilities.

“The protection measures did not change, but due to the recent job reductions in the Gaza Strip there has been anger among the employees. We will not let these protests develop and we will not allow any attacks against employees or facilities,” he said.

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.

In August, the United States announced a halt in its aid to UNRWA, calling it an “irredeemably flawed operation”, prompting the organization to appeal to donors for help

UNRWA chief Pierre Krahenbuhl said on Thursday that the agency received contributions of $118 million, narrowing a budget gap for this year to $68 million. The pledges were made at a meeting on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York.

Gaza has been for years in deep economic crisis. With poverty rampant and unemployment high, many of its two million residents depend on UNRWA services.

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