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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

UNRWA strike highlights its real problems

From AFP via ReliefWeb:
More than 16,000 employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) held a one-day strike in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to demand better pay, their union said.

A further 14,000 observed a two-hour stoppage in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, said Adel Eid, who leads the UNRWA's workers union.

He said the action is in protest at a reduction in services given to Palestinian refugees and management's failure to respond to employees' demands for salary rises.

UNRWA's website is silent, as it always is when it has problems like these. Even though UNRWA offices sometimes get protesters, or shut down, or other problems like Lebanese fighting decimated the Nahr el Bared camp, or when Arab governments don't pay their pledges to UNRWA, the only party to ever get publicly blamed on their website is Israel.

UNRWA on Monday criticised a workers’ union decision to stage work stoppages today, calling on staff not to deny refugees access to services.

Staff unions in the agency's five fields of operation (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank) will carry out regional strikes today, claiming that UNRWA went back on a promise to raise employees' retirement compensation benefits.

Late last month, unions threatened to carry out a series of mass protests in response to the relief agency’s decision not to improve its end-of-service compensation system.

Unionists demand that retiring employees receive severance pay equivalent to two months' salary for each year of service rather than the current amount of one month per year.

According to worker representatives, UNRWA Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd agreed last month to a proposal entailing moderate increases of retirement benefits staggered over several years, a claim the agency has repeatedly denied.

Sami Mshasha, UNRWA’s chief of public information office and spokesperson, described the planned work stoppages as “counterproductive, disruptive and sending all the wrong messages to refugees, donors and to the staff themselves”.

"UNRWA regrets the staff union's decision to suspend services in a staggered fashion to protest the alleged failure to meet a promise to improve end-of-service benefits for staff,” Mshasha said in an e-mail sent to The Jordan Times yesterday.

Staff union demands come at a period during which the agency is facing financial difficulties, struggling to meet the basic needs of refugees while burdened with a widening budget deficit, he added.

According to UNRWA official figures, the salaries of the agency’s 30,000 employees are above the average salaries of the host countries' public sector employees, he noted.

“UNRWA's comprehensive health insurance to staff, the Provident Fund and end-of-service benefits plus an annual salary increase is considered to be one of the most competitive in the region amongst public sector employers,” Mshasha said.

Because of UNRWA's ridiculously expansive definition of "refugee," it is doomed to require more and more money from donor countries forever. It has turned from a well-meaning temporary organization that was dedicated to helping real refugees find jobs and resettle in other Arab countries into a huge bureaucracy that is self-perpetuating as well as a key reason that so many Palestinian Arabs are in a stateless limbo today.

UNRWA Commisioner-General Karen Abu-Zayd's speech at a meeting with UNRWA donors yesterday shows how seriously UNRWA is now part of the problem:


UNRWA’s weak financial situation hinders our ability to discharge our responsibilities to the standards Palestine refugees deserve. We are restricted in our ability to plan and deliver quality services and efforts to improve the quality of UNRWA services are paralyzed. The circumstances of austerity generate anxiety among refugee communities and among our staff, as a result of which relationships with our staff unions are tense. Our lack of funds prevents us from responding favorably to staff’s legitimate demands for salary increases to cope with rises in the cost of living.

As I prepare to retire, UNRWA’s financial prospects are my most worrying preoccupation. I urge you to do whatever you can, individually and collectively, to help us place UNRWA’s finances on a sound, predictable footing.

As long as descendants of refugees are considered refugees themselves, UNRWA's budget will continue to balloon to accommodate the high birth rate that accompany Palestinian Arabs who don't have to pay for their own services and who are prevented from integrating as normal citizens in their host countries.

It doesn't take a statistician to understand that there is no way that millions of so-called "refugees" will ever "return" to an Arab Palestinian state. It doesn't take an economist to realize that at the rate things are going, UNRWA's budget shortfalls will only increase. It doesn't take an ethicist to realize that Arab countries are systematically discriminating against their Palestinian "guests."

The only solution is resettlement in host countries and a limit to the number of people considered refugees and eligible for services - say, third generation. If Palestinian Arab nationalism is as strong as claimed, the fact that they are citizens in other Arab countries should not impact their non-existent desire to "return."

But the idea is anathema to both UNRWA and to Arab countries, and decades of Arab opposition has become ingrained in UNRWA thinking:

Until a just and lasting solution is agreed, UNRWA will do its utmost to contribute to the well-being of Palestine refugees, and by so doing, remain a force for regional stability.

"Regional stability" is a keyword meaning that UNRWA will not allow Palestinian Arabs to upset the demographic balance in their Arab host countries,which could potentially destabilize Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. As long as these "refugees" are prevented from assimilating and integrating into the countries of their birth, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

("Just" is also a keyword for prolonging the conflict, an Arab term that the UN has adopted for years to justify keeping PalArabs in limbo, and it is very troubling that a US State Department official used that very term as well this week.)

Meanwhile, Abu-Zayd disgracefully does everything she can to blame everything on Israel, to the point of baldfaced lies:

In Gaza, the blockade remains firmly in place.... Stunted growth among children, a consequence of chronic malnutrition, is making an appearance. ...[It] is apparent that the indiscriminate effects of the blockade serve only to swell the ranks of militants and the radicalized.
As I showed yesterday, years of UN warnings of a "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza are contradicted by stunted growth in children statistics.

The trope that poverty causes radicalism has been debunked countless times - on Hamas' Al Qassam website there is a front-page tribute to the suicide bombers of Mike's Place in Tel Aviv in 2003, which was done by British Pakistanis.

Conditions in the West Bank are similarly dire. The web of physical obstacles - some 592 currently - restricts Palestinian social interaction and denies access to economic opportunities and to resources such as land and water. Settlement construction and settler violence, land confiscation, house demolitions and evictions (including in East Jerusalem) and other violations of human rights are rife.
She is saying that conditions in the West Bank are "similarly dire" to Gaza? This is so divorced from reality as to be farce, but in UNRWA's relentless pursuit for more and more funding to perpetuate the misery that they claim they are ameliorating, they need a villain - and Israel fits the bill.

Abu Zayd won't mention the names of the groups fighting in Lebanon where UNRWA-run camps turned into hotbeds of radical Islam. She won't mention the many terrorists who got their education from UNRWA schools, or even who taught in UNRWA schools. For Abu Zayd and UNRWA, the only way to survive is to adopt the most radical Arab positions on the conflict as their own and to abandon any pretense of fairness and impartiality.