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After Trump cuts aid, U.N. relief agency lays off staff in Gaza and West Bank

A wall painting made by Palestinian employees of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees headquarters in Gaza City as they protest the agency’s decision to fire dozens of them. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

JERUSALEM — The United Nations said Wednesday it had been forced to lay off more than 250 Palestinian employees in Gaza and the West Bank and cut services after the United States slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance for Palestinian refugees, said it had cut 154 employees in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and 113 in Gaza. About 580 other staff members in Gaza will be moved to part-time contracts, and the budget for its community mental health services will be reduced. 

During emotional scenes at the agency’s compound in Gaza, one employee tried to set himself on fire, according to the local union. Images showed him dousing himself in gasoline before being wrestled to the ground.

The United States has provided just $60 million for UNRWA this year, compared with $360 million last year. The reduction in funding came after President Trump criticized the money provided to the Palestinians even though they were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

Unless UNRWA can plug the funding gap, the agency has said it may have to cut essential health and education programs, and it has warned in particular that it may have to delay the start of the school year for 526,000 children in the agency’s schools. 

The cuts in Gaza are “making an intolerable humanitarian crisis even more life-threatening,” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. He added: “Now the very organization mandated specifically to provide lifesaving services is being forced to cut service provisions. It’s heartbreaking.”

The U.S. government has raised concerns about the potential for increased instability in Gaza because of its humanitarian crisis. Nearly half the population is unemployed and many drowning in debt. For more than a decade, Israel has tightly restricted the movement of people and goods entering and leaving the enclave.

Despite cutting funding for the agency, the Trump administration has recently discussed initiatives to relieve Gaza’s economic woes, as its wider peace process flounders. The Palestinian Authority had said that the United States could no longer be considered an honest broker in the peace process after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 

UNRWA provides education and health services to some 5 million Palestinians, refugees or the descendants of those displaced during the conflict with Israel, both inside Gaza and the West Bank and in neighboring countries.

This population includes more than 70 percent of Gaza’s 2 million residents, making the impoverished strip particularly vulnerable to UNRWA cuts. 

Speaking to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov urged the United States to unfreeze its funding.

Gunness said that the agency is doing what it can to maintain its core services but that it does not have enough money to open its schools. “But this is a priority, and we are working with our donors to make this happen,” he said. “The consequences of not opening schools for over half a million children would be disastrous.”

During the Security Council session on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley criticized Arab countries for not doing more to help, reading out a list of countries along with the amounts they had or had not donated to UNRWA. 

The agency has been trying to shore up alternative funding sources since the United States announced its funding cut. 

“We are still in crisis,” Gunness said. “Let no one claim otherwise. But we are also determined to maintain core services to the millions of Palestine refugees who rely on us in Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Syria, and preserve what we can of our emergency assistance.”

The United States had been the agency’s biggest donor before the cut and paid nearly $100 million a year to “emergency programming.” Without it, the agency has been forced to take “mitigating measures,” Gunness said. That includes cutting its West Bank “Cash for Work” program — which provides work opportunities — by the end of the month. The program will continue in Gaza. 

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report. 

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