The United Nations agency which provides assistance and protection to Palestinian refugees today said it is temporarily closing all relief and distribution centres after demonstrators, angry about programme cuts, stormed its Gaza office.
“The incident is a dramatic and disturbing escalation in a series of demonstrations that have taken place over the past week,” the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said in a statement.
“These demonstrations affect our ability to provide much-needed service to the Palestine refugees in Gaza and – because they also targeted the Gaza headquarters building – our operations in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.”
Many of UNRWA’s other facilities had already been shut down due to demonstrations. With this additional protest, UNRWA said the safety of its staff is of crucial concern, and that it would close all its relief and distribution centres “until guarantees are given by all relevant groups that UN operations can continue unhindered.”
Today’s breach followed an announcement by UNRWA that it would reduce its cash assistance programme due to a $35 million budget shortfall.
The Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, Robert Turner, said that to mitigate the effects of the reductions, the Agency had introduced and expanded its Job Creation Programme to the poorest refugee families in Gaza.
In addition, UNRWA’s large-scale food distribution programme, with over 800,000 beneficiaries, “will continue unchanged.”
Mr. Turner said that while the Agency respects people’s right to peaceful demonstration, what happened today was “completely unacceptable.”
“The situation could very easily have resulted in serious injuries to UNRWA staff and to the demonstrators. This escalation, apparently pre-planned, was unwarranted and unprecedented.”
UNRWA called on all the groups behind today’s incident “to immediately stop inciting crowds at these demonstrations and to conduct themselves in a responsible manner.”
It also called on authorities to play their role in providing security and ensuring demonstrations remain peaceful, and encouraged donors to continue to fund UNRWA's vital relief programmes.
“We always put the needs of the refugees first but at a certain point when we feel that our safety of our staff - and we have nearly 11,000 of them - is not guaranteed, then it is difficult to operate in such an environment,” UNRWA spokesperson Sami Mshasha told UN Radio.
“The ultimate losers are the refugees themselves,” Mr. Mshasha added.