Scenes of chaos erupted in Gaza City on Wednesday, after UNRWA — the UN agency responsible for providing services for Palestinian refugees — announced that it would be laying off hundreds of its employees following massive US budget cuts this year.
One Palestinian man, an employee at UNRWA, attempted to set himself on fire.
Videos of the incident show dozens of people grabbing the man, whose identity remained unknown, as he doused himself in gasoline outside the UNRWA headquarters.
As he was carried away, his colleagues poured water on him, while women cried and screamed in the background.
Dr. Amal al-Batsh, deputy chairperson of union for UNRWA workers, was participating in an ongoing sit-in protest at the headquarter building when the incident took place.
“The man who tried to set himself on fire has been a long-term employee with UNRWA,” al-Batsh told Mondoweiss.
“He has two children that are handicapped, and he is the sole breadwinner for his immediate and extended family, around 20 people,” she said.
The man was one of an estimated 1,000 UNRWA employees who will be affected by the job cuts.
According to al-Batsh, 125 workers from the agency’s emergency program were immediately dismissed, 570 employees were told that they would be hired only on a part time basis until the end of the year, while 270 were told that their contracts would also be terminated at the end of the year if the financial crisis is not resolved.
That budget meltdown is the direct result of the US administration’s decision to suspend more than half of the annual funding – $65 million out of $125 million – which it had previously given UNRWA.
In a statement, UNRWA said its emergency assistance is “critically under-funded in the occupied Palestinian territory, where the US contribution for emergency programming — almost $100 million per year — is no longer available and has forced us to take mitigating measures,” referring to the Trump administration’s decision to suspend more than half of its annual funding to the agency.
“The human-impact of this decision is devastating, it is a tragedy,” al-Batsh told Mondoweiss, as she described the dire situation of countless UNRWA employees.
“The man who tried to light himself on fire, he is not the only one in a terrible situation,” she said, adding that many of the employees who received termination letters had been working at the agency for upwards of 20 years.
“When they received the letters, people were screaming and crying, that they will not be able to pay rent for their families, that they won’t be able to pay for their children’s’ educations, and that some won’t be able to even afford food,” al-Batsh said.
One man, she said, cried as he realized he won’t be able to pay for his two daughters to continue medical school. Another woman, who is diabetic and suffers from several health issues, fainted and was rushed to the hospital upon receiving the news.
Al-Batsh argued that terminating 1,000 employees and their salaries is a drop in the bucket compared to the agency’s current deficit, which stands at $217 million.
“The collective salary of these 1,000 staff members amounts only to $3 million,” she said. “In the big picture, how will that possibly solve the financial crisis?”
And while UNRWA said that the financial crisis has forced the agency to “give priority to refugees with the most critical needs” and to “protect core services,” al-Batsh says the impact of the move extends far beyond the employees that lost their jobs.
Many of of the staff who were let go, al-Batsh noted, were working in psychosocial programs that provide psychological support to children inside their schools and communities.
“In Gaza there is a severe need for these services, due to the war, due to the siege, we all need psychological support,” she said, adding that the program serves some 14,000 people in Gaza.
Some of the employees who were terminated work in the UNRWA health department, and help children with speech and hearing disabilities.
“These kids are going to lose this service, and at the end of the day, they will suffer the most, because they will lose their ability to have an education and a future,” al-Batsh said.
“The cuts will affect workers in the relief and services department, who make poverty assessments and contribute to the food assistance programs,” she said.
“More than one million people in Gaza receive aid from UNRWA. If we reduce these services by more than half, how can the people survive?”
As sit-in protests continue at the UNRWA headquarters compound in Gaza City, massive demonstrations will take place in the coming days, with some 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza expected to take part.
According to al-Batsh, if the employees in question are not returned to their posts within 21 days, the workers union will launch an open-ended strike.
Al-Batsh predicts the UNRWA protests will spill into the ongoing Great March of Return protests along the eastern Gaza borders with Israel, as frustration continues to mount over the devastating economic and humanitarian situation in the besieged coastal enclave.
“I expect you will find many of the employees who lost their jobs at the borders in the coming days,” she said, expressing fears over the escalating crisis in Gaza.
“The situation in Gaza is not ‘on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.’ We are far past the edge, and it is only getting worse from here.”