UNRWA strike spotlights spiraling conditions in West Bank refugee camps

Basil Adra

+972 Magazine  /  February 14, 2023

The protest by workers at the UN agency comes amid funding cuts and escalating pressure to ‘eliminate the Palestinian refugee issue.’

As January came to a close and winter set in, the entrances to the refugee camps of the occupied West Bank were littered with long lines of bags full of garbage. The 46,000 Palestinian children who live in the camps were not in school; they walked the streets aimlessly, with nothing to do. The pharmacies were closed, as were the welfare offices, which provide services to thousands of poor families. 

This situation was the result of a massive strike by 3,700 workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA, in the West Bank and Jerusalem, over what they say are their unfair working conditions. UNRWA, which was founded in 1949 in the wake of the 1948 Nakba, during which Israeli forces expelled and prevented the return of over 750,000 Palestinians, provides services to Palestinian refugees in 61 camps across the Arab world. 

The strike was suspended on February 9 after workers agreed to enter negotiations. “The strike was stopped to give an opportunity to negotiate the demands of the union,” said Jamal Abdullah, head of UNRWA’s workers’ committee and a resident of the Jalazone refugee camp who faced punitive action from UNRWA for his role in the strikes. “The procedures against me, which consisted of stopping me from work, were stopped, but the investigation procedures with me are still taking place.” UNRWA has not yet met the demands of the striking workers.

Almost 900,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA in the West Bank, a quarter of whom live in camps. The role of the agency is critical: it is responsible for the schools, clinics, welfare and infrastructure in all 19 refugee camps in the West Bank, from the Jenin camp in the north, most of whose residents were displaced from the Carmel and Haifa area, to Fawwar camp south of Hebron, whose residents were displaced from southern Palestine. The agency also operates Shuafat camp, the only refugee camp in Jerusalem.

“The decision to strike was difficult for us,” Abdullah told +972 while the strike was ongoing. “We and our children are affected by the strike. We live in the refugee camps and now we are left without schools. The streets are full of garbage leaving an unhealthy environment. But there is no choice: the negotiations with the management failed and we demand our rights as workers.”

Among the thousands of strikers were doctors, teachers, social workers, and cleaners. Traditionally, UNRWA pegs the salaries of its employees in the West Bank to those of Palestinian Authority employees. However, UNRWA employees report that their salaries are significantly lower. UNRWA workers are also demanding transparency around the criteria for determining salary levels; a maximum of 50 students in UNRWA classrooms; and that all workers be granted full rights as employees, rather than as contract workers.

‘They want to change the definition of a Palestinian refugee’

Ismayil Abu Hashesh, who lives in Fawwar refugee camp, is an educator and the principal of an UNRWA-run high school. He is a member of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and in the past led several labor struggles. His father was born in the village of Iraq al-Manshiyeh, whose ruins lie beneath the city of Kiryat Gat and Sde Moshe. 

According to Abu Hashesh, there is a direct connection between the strike, the garbage in the streets of his camp, and the decisions made in Jerusalem, Washington, and New York. “In the end, it’s a matter of politics,” he said. “There is an attempt to undermine the right of return of Palestinian refugees by going after UNRWA’s funding. The biggest blow was in 2018, when President [Donald] Trump decided to stop all American support for the agency.”

The U.S. is UNRWA’s largest funder. In 2021, the Biden administration reversed the decision to cut all funding for the agency, yet the U.S. government remains hostile toward UNRWA. Last December, the United States abstained from voting at the UN on a resolution to renew the mandate for UNRWA’s activities, which has been held every three years in the General Assembly since the agency was established. It also voted against a proposal to increase UNRWA’s budget.

Israel was the only country that voted against the resolution, and the decision passed by a large majority, albeit by a smaller margin than in previous years: 157 countries supported the latest renewal of the mandate, compared to 169 in 2019, and 167 in 2016. Besides the U.S., nine other countries abstained, including Cameroon, Canada, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Abu Hashesh sees this as a sign of the times.

“The vote is the result of American and Israeli pressure to eliminate the Palestinian refugee issue,” said Abu Hashesh. “They want to change the definition of a Palestinian refugee, so that refugee status is not inherited from father to son.”

UNRWA’s long-held policy is that as long as there is no solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, the descendants of refugees from 1948 are also defined as refugees and thus entitled to relief. The cessation of American support during the Trump era and long-standing Israeli pressure is intended to change this definition so that the category of refugee only applies to those who were expelled themselves. In practice, this would mean the elimination of the refugee issue writ large. Of the millions of Palestinians who are registered as refugees, only a few tens of thousands will remain.

“The United States is a powerful and frightening player in the international arena, and its moves against UNRWA also affect other countries,” said Abu Hashesh. “Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates may also cut their support as a result of American pressure.” Israeli officials have also consistently called for UNRWA to be shut down, even as some within Israel’s military establishment see the agency as a body that helps stabilize the occupation — shouldering responsibility that would fall to Israel should UNRWA collapse.

These power relations form the backdrop for the strike, he continued, pointing out that the attack on the funding has led to a deterioration in working conditions. “In the past, UNRWA’s welfare services provided assistance to hundreds of thousands of families of Palestinian refugees,” Abu Hashesh said. “But due to cuts, this number has dropped significantly, as has the quality of services in the clinics.” Meanwhile, other workers claim that the strike is the result of corruption and unfair economic conduct by UNRWA’s management.

Growing labor disputes

At the entrance to the empty schools of some of the West Bank camps, workers posted signs supporting the strike. But there was also anger evident in the streets, as people’s lives came to a standstill. In one camp, residents emptied garbage containers that overflowed into the streets, in front of the local UNRWA office. Many of the residents, and especially the poor among them, do not have easy access to medicine. The clinics mostly remained closed during the strike, apart from providing treatment to those wounded during army raids on the refugee camps.

UNRWA, for its part, did not remain silent in the face of the strikes. After protesters closed the agency’s offices in Jerusalem for 10 days prior to the beginning of the strike, it suspended the workers’ committee head Abdullah, one of the leaders of the protest. UNRWA has stated that Abdullah’s pay would be temporarily suspended, until its investigation into the matter is completed.

“Management must not suspend a member of the committee or damage the salaries of the protesters during a labor dispute,” said Raed Amira, spokesman for the workers’ committee. In response to the protest, the agency said that it is working to correct wage disparities of some of the positions in the organization, but that “most of the employees receive the same salaries as those received by PA employees.” The agency also criticized the strike, saying in a statement that it “significantly affects the agency’s ability to provide essential services to residents, which were stopped in 19 refugee camps across the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

The strikes took place against a backdrop of recent labor disputes in the West Bank. In the last two years, there have been a number of strikes by teachers and doctors employed as PA workers. The PA, like UNRWA, depends on foreign donations, but its finances are suffering not only due to external cuts, but also as a result of  Israeli punitive measures — such as, for example, the confiscation of tens of millions of shekels from the taxes that Israel collects for the PA at border crossings, in retaliation for the PA’s payments to the families of prisoners. 

In January, after the Palestinian leadership turned to the International Court of Justice for an opinion on the legality of the Israeli occupation, Israel took approximately NIS 138.8 million out of the tax money it would ordinarily transfer to the PA and instead distributed it to the families of Israeli victims of violent attacks. These measures directly harmed the livelihood of tens of thousands of families throughout the West Bank, causing further devastation in the lead-up to the UNRWA strike.

Basil Adraa is an activist, journalist, and photographer from the village of Al-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills