’Mutiny’ at UN Palestinian agency in Gaza after job cuts

Palestinians receive aid at a United Nations food distribution centre in a Gazan refugee camp. (AFP)
Updated 08 August 2018

’Mutiny’ at UN Palestinian agency in Gaza after job cuts

  • UNRWA’s Gaza chief says he does not have control of the agencies headquarters
  • Union organizing protests after threat to 250 Palestinian jobs

GAZA: Workers have seized partial control of the headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Hamas-run Gaza, its head said Wednesday, accusing their union of “mutiny” over job cuts.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) announced last month more than 250 staff in Gaza and the occupied West Bank would lose their jobs, after a $300 million cut in annual funding from the United States.
The redundancies have prompted daily protests by the agency’s labor union in the enclave, which UNRWA’s Gaza head said have led to security concerns.
“They have taken over the compound where my office and other offices are,” said Matthias Schmale.
The agency’s Gaza chief admitted UNRWA does not have full control over the site, in Gaza City, explaining he has not been able to work from his own office for more than two weeks.
“I am the captain of the ship which has 13,000 sailors on it and they have basically thrown me off the bridge and consigned me to my captain’s quarters,” he told AFP, referring to the number of employees in Gaza.
UNRWA provides support for more than three million Palestinians across the Middle East, including the majority of Gaza’s two million residents.
It operates more than 200 schools in the enclave, which may not open at the start of the academic year without new funding and an end to the labor dispute.
Schmale accused the labor union of multiple incidents of “threatening and intimidating other fellow Palestinian staff. For me that crosses a red line.”
“I am very concerned about the safety and security of my Palestinian colleagues,” he added.
The union denied all allegations of intimidation and is due to continue demonstrating, with a general strike expected in the coming days unless a deal is reached.
“This is a peaceful and safe sit-in inside the regional headquarters of UNRWA to demand (employees’) right to be able to continue their work,” Amir Al-Mishal, head of the UNRWA employee union in Gaza, told AFP.
He said some of those affected by the cuts had been working for the agency for more than 30 years and they were seeking dialogue with the management.
On Wednesday the protest inside the UNRWA compound was visited by Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas member, who pledged his Islamist movement’s full support for protesters, an AFP correspondent said.
Schmale was unaware that Zahar had been inside the compound, saying any visit by a figure from Hamas — considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union — was forbidden as it breaches the UN’s impartiality rules.
A small number of employees have begun a hunger strike against the cuts outside Schmale’s office, seeking to force management to reverse course.
Ismail Al-Talaa, who worked in psychological support in a school, said he was on his fourth day without food.
He compared his salary of around $1,000 a month with what he called the huge incomes and benefits earned by Schmale and other senior UNRWA leaders, who are usually internationals.
The funding crisis was sparked in January by the United States, traditionally the largest donor to UNRWA, cutting its annual grant from $360 million to just $60 million.

Beirut praises ‘progress’ on maritime border dispute

Updated 21 May 2019

Beirut praises ‘progress’ on maritime border dispute

  • Israel and Lebanon both claim ownership of an 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Lebanon insists that the area lies within its economic zone and refuses to give up a single part of it

BEIRUT: Lebanon has hinted that progress is being made in efforts to resolve its maritime border dispute with Israel following the return of a US mediator from talks with Israeli officials.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield returned to Lebanon following talks in Israel where he outlined Lebanese demands regarding the disputed area and the mechanism to reach a settlement.

The US mediator has signaled a new push to resolve the dispute after meetings with both Lebanese and Israeli officials.

Israel and Lebanon both claim ownership of an 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to begin offshore oil and gas production in the offshore Block 9 as it grapples with an economic crisis.

A source close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who met with Satterfield on Monday after his return to Lebanon, told Arab News that “there is progress in the efforts, but the discussion is not yet over.” He did not provide further details.

Sources close to the Lebanese presidency confirmed that Lebanon is counting on the US to help solve the demarcation dispute and would like to accelerate the process to allow exploration for oil and gas to begin in the disputed area.

Companies that will handle the exploration require stability in the area before they start working, the sources said.

Previous efforts by Satterfield to end the dispute failed in 2012 and again last year after Lebanon rejected a proposal by US diplomat Frederick Hoff that offered 65 percent of the disputed area to Lebanon and 35 percent to Israel. Lebanon insisted that the area lies within its economic zone and refused to give up a single part of it.

Satterfield has acknowledged Lebanon’s ownership of around 500 sq km of the disputed 850 sq km area.

Lebanon renewed its commitment to a mechanism for setting the negotiations in motion, including the formation of a tripartite committee with representatives of Lebanon, Israel and the UN, in addition to the participation of the US mediator. Beirut also repeated its refusal to negotiate directly with Israel.

Two months ago, Lebanon launched a marine environmental survey in blocks 4 and 9 in Lebanese waters to allow a consortium of French, Italian and Russian companies to begin oil and gas exploration in the area.