Palestinian Worker Says UN Refugee Agency Is Retaliating Against Him for Leading Strike

A Palestinian worker for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is accusing the agency of retaliating against him for leading a strike for better pay.

The strike of nearly 4,000 workers in the West Bank began on January 23, and is still ongoing. “We need an increase in our pay now. We are suffering a lot,” Jamal Abdullah, general president of the West Bank’s UNRWA staff union, told Workday Magazine over the phone. The strike has shut down some schools, medical facilities, and services, according to news reports.

Abdullah, who has been a prominent face of the strike, and quoted in press reports, tells Workday Magazine that he may now be facing discipline, or even termination, as a result of his role. “UNRWA took my ID and told me I am under investigation, and we might dismiss you,” he says. 

Abdullah was told of the investigation on January 18, he says, well after the union gave notice of a strike in mid-November, 2022.

When asked for comment, Juliette S. Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, told Workday Magazine, “One of the staff members was put on administrative leave while he goes under investigation. Until the results of the investigation come out, there’s no decision if he/she will be dismissed.”

“This decision came following and as a direct result of  the local staff union in the West Bank closing the UNRWA Premises in East Jerusalem for 10 days starting 15 January,” she said “Closing down a UN premises or any other UN installation or facility and banning  access to it by any party  is a violation of the UN staff rules.” Touma added, “The strike on the other hand started on 23 January, 8 days after the closure of the compound.”

But Abdullah says these remarks are “misleading.” The union “only protested at the office in Jerusalem, and that is within our rights as union representatives and staff,” he said, adding: “I assure you that the unions did not block access to anyone, including the director of office in the West Bank, who stopped reporting to the office only after being instructed by the executive office in an attempt to pressure us.”

Furthermore, Abdullah says that he was not present at the UN premises in East Jerusalem. “I haven’t had a permit to enter Jerusalem in over a year,” he says.

When asked if Abdullah is being investigated for actions that he wasn’t present at, because of his leadership role in the union, Touma said, “Our colleague Jamal is currently under investigation and administrative leave. UNRWA  cannot provide any more information until the end of the investigation also to protect the privacy of our staff member and in respect to the process.”

Abdullah says he is certain that the investigation is retaliation for his role in the strike. But, he argues, the problem predates the current work action.

 “Long before the calling for an open strike, UNRWA management started harassing me and my colleagues at the saff union, who were all democratically elected by UNRWA national staff, simply because we are representing staff interests and because we disagreed with management’s unjust decisions,” he said.

Abdullah says “there is a constant fear of retaliation, especially for Palestinian staff. This management is selective and discriminates between national and international non-Arab staff.”

The union is composed of Palestinians in the West Bank who work as teachers, engineers, laborers, sanitation workers, doctors, and more, explains Abdullah, who is a school principal in Ramallah. He says that workers are being hit hard by soaring prices, but that URWA is using its funding crisis to justify the suppression of wages.

UNRWA says it is “mandated by the UN General Assembly to serve ‘Palestine refugees.’” It is 93 percent funded by UN member states, and also partners with businesses and foundations, according to the agency’s website.

UNRWA criticized the strike in a public statement. “As the UNRWA Director in the West Bank, I call on the union to end the strike and resume activities for the benefit of Palestine refugees, including to reopen the schools so that more than 45,000 girls and boys are afforded a safe space,” UNRWA Director of West Bank Affairs, Adam Bouloukos, said on January 30. “The last place we would want these children to be is on the streets, unsupervised, during heightened violence.”

It is common practice for employers to accuse workers of putting the public in danger by going on strike. As up to half a million British teachers, rail workers, and civil servants stage mass walkouts, conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is accusing them of not caring about children’s schooling, even though the workers say they are waging strikes to save public institutions, like schools. Late last year, President Joe Biden said “a rail shutdown would devastate our economy” when justifying his denial of rail workers’ right to strike, even as rail workers warned it was corporate greed that was devastating the workforce. Nurses are routinely accused of putting patients in danger by going on strike, even though it is nurses’ willingness to withhold their labor that has improved patient safety by, for example, winning better nurse-to-patient ratios. 

But UNRWA’s statement is notable because it indicates that the oppressive conditions Palestinians face are a reason why it is morally inexcusable for them to exercise their basic right to strike.

Israel is occupying the West Bank. It controls borders, air, security, and movement of people and products, and maintains ​​complete administrative control of Area C, which makes up 60% of the West Bank. Israel even has control over identity cards for Palestinians, who are officially considered stateless. Settlement expansion, with government support, upholds an apartheid system, in which West Bank towns are separated from each other, and Palestinians are forced to travel on Palestinian-only roads. Ethnic exclusion is overt state policy; Israel’s 2018 constitutional law declared it is solely the “nation state of the Jewish people.” This system is enforced by the Israeli military, which receives $3.8 billion from the United States every year.

These conditions are intensifying as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consolidates the most far-right government in Israeli history.

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the U.S.-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center, says, “It is important for Palestinians in diaspora and for the international solidarity movement to support all workers under apartheid and occupation. The struggles of working people in Palestine to organize unions, to collectively bargain, to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, and to take collective action, are critical to our movement.”

“Divide-and-conquer tactics that pit workers against their communities are not helpful, especially in this moment of increased Israeli colonial violence,” she adds. “If UNRWA directors in the West Bank want to prioritize the health and wellbeing of Palestinian refugees and children, then I believe they should respect the actions and voice of Palestinian and UNRWA workers and proceed with good-faith urgency to accommodate their demands.”

According to Abdullah, “I know the strike is very hard, but there is no choice for us.”

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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