I recognized the man lying on the ground during a recent protest in Gaza City. His name is Nidal al-Shanti. He was once my teacher and had been kind to me.
When I injured my hand in class 14 years ago, al-Shanti took me to hospital. He bought me orange juice and – following my treatment – drove me home.
To my relief, al-Shanti soon regained consciousness after he fainted at the protest. He drank some water and immediately launched into a tirade about his employer UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
He had just learned that he was losing his job.
“UNRWA has killed us and killed our families,” al-Shanti, a teacher of metal and woodwork, said.
Al-Shanti, 42, had borrowed $70,000 from the bank recently, so that he could buy a new house. He had planned to move into the house by the end of this year.
That now appears unlikely because he has been deprived of his income.
The uncertainty about how he will meet other financial commitments is also causing him stress. His 9-year-old son Walid has leukemia and requires medication costing $300 per month.
UNRWA, a key provider of education and health care to Palestine’s refugees, is undergoing a crisis. A $300 million cut in US aid to the agency this year has placed many of its activities in jeopardy.
Last month the agency announced measures that could affect around 1,000 jobs, as well as resulting in salary reductions for those who remain on the payroll.
More than 100 of its Gaza-based employees were informed in July that they would not be having their contracts renewed. Approximately 580 staff are being moved to part-time work.
Although the funding cuts have been imposed by President Donald Trump and his administration in Washington, many people in Gaza are directing their fury at the agency itself.
“Instead of helping us as refugees, UNRWA is playing games with our livelihoods,” said Fathi Shehada. A social worker, he had been employed on the agency’s food voucher programs before the recent cutbacks.
Since his father died in 2008, Shehada’s family has relied heavily on his job to make ends meet.
“I’m not married yet,” the 32-year-old said. “I have put getting married on hold so that I can support my family. Now it seems that I will have to extend this delay for another few years – until I find another job.”
Nedaa Ismail, a 31-year-old mother of four, had been working as a psychologist for an UNRWA school. Losing her job will have severe implications for her family.
Her husband’s salary as a police officer with the local administration in Gaza is not enough for the family to live on. Furthermore, he has only been receiving part of his wages in recent times.
“My family needed me to have my job,” she said. “I have no idea what to do now. UNRWA is punishing our refugee children.”
The anger of UNRWA staff has been palpable during recent protests. The agency has complained about some of the tactics used by protesters, such as blocking managers from reaching their offices.
During one demonstration, a man doused himself in diesel. Others intervened to stop the man from setting himself on fire:
The man in question was Jihad Wishah, a 35-year-old who had also been working as a psychologist for an UNRWA school.
Wishah has been married for the past decade but he and his wife have not been able to have children. The couple had planned to visit Egypt for fertility treatment later this year. Wishah fears that he will not be able to afford the trip.
When he heard of the UNRWA job cuts “my dream of having children vanished,” Wishah said.
Organizers of the protests have vowed to continue them.
Amir El-Mishal, who represents a union for UNRWA employees, has demanded that the agency’s decision to cut jobs be withdrawn.
A spokesperson for the protesters, Ismael al-Talaa, noted that the people losing their jobs provide sorely needed services. Ending contracts to UNRWA workers will have an adverse impact on many of Gaza’s most vulnerable people.
“This is a political decision,” said al-Talaa, who has lost his own job working in the agency’s food voucher program.
Since the job cuts were announced, new evidence has surfaced about how senior figures in Washington wish to damage UNRWA.
Jared Kushner, a top-level adviser and son-in-law of Trump, expressed a desire earlier this year to “disrupt” UNRWA. In email correspondence, Kushner contended that the agency was “corrupt” and “inefficient.”
Kushner’s allegation was at odds with comments from UNRWA that the US goverment had expressed satisfaction with how the agency was transparent and accountable.
Dating from January, Kushner’s email message was published this month by Foreign Policy magazine.
The disruption favored by Kushner will increase hardship for Palestinians.
UNRWA announced late last week that classes for the 526,000 Palestinian refugee children who attend its 711 schools in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria would begin on time in September.
But UNRWA’s commissioner-general warned that “we currently only have funding to run the agency’s services until the end of September,” and that a further $217 million is needed to ensure schools remain open through the rest of the year.
Many Palestinians fear that the attacks on UNRWA are part of a bigger assault on the rights of refugees.
Akram Atallah, a political analyst who writes a column for the newspaper al-Ayyam, suspects that the Trump administration wishes to prevent Palestinians from returning to homes they lost during the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Although that right has been affirmed in UN resolutions, Israel and its allies in Washington have long been working to undermine it. Atallah believes that the US wishes to take the issue of refugee rights off the agenda from any negotiations between Israel and Palestinian political leaders.
“After Trump announced that he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the US and Israel are now working to end the discussion on refugees,” Atallah said. “I expect that the American leadership will soon ask for the right to return to be removed from negotiations.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.