UNRWA Begins Laying Off Workers Ahead of Expected Cut in U.S. Aid

UN Palestinian refugee agency begins to enact extensive cutbacks, laying off dozens of teachers in East Jerusalem, West Bank and Jordan

The UN Palestinian aid agency has laid off dozens of teachers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and about 100 workers in 13 refugee camps in Jordan, citing a delay in the transfer of $125 million from the United States that was due in recent weeks.

The United States will withhold $65 million from a payment it was scheduled to transfer this month to the UNRWA, a U.S. official said Tuesday. He said that U.S. will provide $60 million in aid, amounting to roughly half the planned sum of $125 million.

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

UNRWA has begun to enact extensive cutbacks in anticipation of a loss of funding from Washington. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump announced that it may cut aid to the Palestinians as long as the Palestinian Authority refuses to enter negotiations with Israel.

According to a report in a Jordanian newspaper, the agency decided to start cutting expenses due to a $174 million deficit in addition to the threatened funding cuts by Washington.

On Tuesday, dozens of fired teachers from East Jerusalem and the West Bank protested in front of UNRWAs offices in East Jerusalem. The teachers received termination notices two months ago, but contacts continued to try to avert the move. In recent days, the teachers received notification that the cutbacks were being implemented and their dismissals were going into effect.

The laid-off workers in Jordan are mostly employees of the agencys schools, including maintenance personnel, janitors and security guards. In some refugee camps, 50 percent of the jobs have been eliminated.

UNRWA says that for now the cutbacks will not affect aid to needy families, but only temporary workers. The organizations Jordan office has 350,000 refugees registered, who account for 42 percent of all the refugees registered with the agency.

In a statement, the UNRWA workers association denounced the move and warned that the cutbacks would badly worsen the already poor conditions in the refugee camps. This increases concerns about an outbreak of disease and the effect on students at the agencys schools, the association said. The fired workers announced that they would hold a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman next week.

Officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization have expressed concerns about the planned cutbacks and their implications for the refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. One official says the impact could lead to protests that would threaten public order, especially in places like Jordan and Lebanon, which are already struggling with  hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.

A Palestinian involved in the issue says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump think that with these moves they can do away with the refugee problem, just as they hope to do away with the Jerusalem problem. But this isnt just a political or diplomatic issue, its the lives of 2 million people, and ignoring their needs could end up blowing up in everyones face.

Palestinian refugee boys play football inside the UNRWA school in Gaza City on January 8, 2018.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP