UNRWA stifles employee discourse on Palestinian rights

“We refuse to touch the Palestinian school curriculum. “

Abdallah al-Attar

Since starting as an English teacher four years ago with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, Ahmed has found himself unable to freely publish stories or express opinions online about Palestine and the Israeli occupation.

“I used to publish articles for some international websites,” Ahmed, 28, told The Electronic Intifada, citing Mondoweiss among other online news sites that published his work.

Like other UN staff interviewed for this article, Ahmed declined to give his real name and the first name here is a pseudonym.

“I also used to express my support for the Palestinian resistance through Facebook, especially during the three previous Israeli attacks on Gaza and at many other events throughout Palestine.

However, after starting his job with UNRWA, Ahmed said he was effectively silenced. And today, UNRWA, still underfunded, is increasingly monitored by international donors. The surveillance has become so intense, Ahmed said, that he is considering deleting all of his social media accounts in case he simply cannot hold back in the future.

In July, the United Nations agency responsible for responding to the needs and rights of Palestinian refugees signed an accord with the United States. condition American financial aid on a number of variables, including the behavior of staff at UNRWA facilities and on social media.

Shortly after, in August, the pro-Israel UN Watch – whose main purpose appears to be to attack UN organs for any alleged bias against Israel – accused 22 UNRWA employees hate speech online.

The agency then suspended and opened an investigation into 10 employees.

It had a chilling effect.

“I cannot express my frustrations about the current events in Jerusalem, the West Bank and even the latest Israeli assault on Gaza,” Ahmed said.

For the same reason, he is also unable to participate in national events and political activities or even to express his support for any of the Palestinian factions.


“As long as I work in this agency, I am obliged to refrain from liking, sharing or creating posts on any political issue, fearing for my work,” Ahmed told The Electronic Intifada.

Married for two years and the father of a baby, Ahmed is well aware that he is unlikely to find a better paying job than at UNRWA due to the dire state of Gaza’s economy.

One of Ahmed’s colleagues was one of 10 suspended from his post for posts in support of the Palestinian resistance during the recent Israeli war on Gaza.

“Whenever I want to express my thoughts on current events in my country via social media, I remember what happened to my friend and I stop,” he said.

By announcing the investigation of its own employees, UNRWA noted all 10 employees were suspended from work for allegations that they had “engaged in non-neutral behavior”.

On its website, UNRWA defines neutrality as a commitment that “humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature”.

UNRWA employees, in other words, according to a strict interpretation of this principle, are deprived of their right to freedom of expression and of their ability to participate politically in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through social media.

In the past, this meant that the political affiliations of employees were taken into account.

Now a much stricter interpretation is setting in.

that of August UN Watch Report accused more than 100 agency workers, dating back to 2015, of “promoting violence and anti-Semitism” in classrooms and on social media.

UN Watch specifically named 22. Embarrassingly, however, UNRWA later determined that of these, only 10 were actually among the agency’s 28,000 employees.

The 10 have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation, UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna told The Electronic Intifada.

The agency “attaches importance to the principle of neutrality, which is important to ensure the flow of funding from donors around the world,” he said.

Violations of Palestinian rights

But union representatives are unhappy with the way UNRWA interprets its rules.

Muhammad Shuweideh, along with the UNRWA Employees’ Union, condemned the measures taken under the pretext of neutrality, which he called “a broad term with various interpretations”. The agency “lacks clear standards for this concept,” he said, for use against its employees.

He argued that the agency itself, interpreting neutrality in this way, was no longer neutral itself. Instead, he said, UNRWA was violating employee rights for the sake of Israel.

In addition, he accused, changes have been made to school curricula that directly undermine Palestinian history and rights otherwise enshrined in international law.

These include, he told The Electronic Intifada, efforts to omit descriptions of Palestinian villages and towns from 1948, avoiding any reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, as well as silencing discussions. on concepts such as the right of return and the right to resist.

And he is not alone in seeing the suspensions as proof that UNRWA is, willfully or not, in collusion with Israel against Palestinian rights.

Gaza-based International Commission in Support of Palestinian Rights, head Salah Abdalati, condemned the suspensions and said the July agreement between the United States and UNRWA was a dangerous development for Palestinian rights .

In 2018, the administration of Donald Trump end of American funding – by far the largest single state contribution – for the agency. Abdalati said the Biden administration exploited negotiations to restore funding to UNRWA in order to secure concessions from the agency, hence the suspensions.

The accusations that the Palestinian agenda incites hatred are really meant to put an end to any discussion of resistance or the right of return, he said. The right of return of Palestinian refugees is sanctioned by the general rights of refugees as well as by a number of UN resolutions starting from resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, he said. .

Tying US funding to political conditions is “very dangerous”, although Abdalati stressed that this is something that successive US administrations have been working on for years forcing a gradual reduction in UNRWA services.

Submitting to such conditions, he said, “goes against the principles of independence and neutrality of UNRWA.

The poverty trap

Gaza’s difficult economic situation has left UNRWA employees at the agency’s mercy. With few job prospects and the threat of poverty, staff are reluctant to risk one of the few sources of reasonable income in the impoverished coastal strip.

Salma, 33, worked as a science teacher in UNRWA schools for three years.

She quit her job in the Gaza public school system for the best UN pay in order to support her family. And during those years, she managed to pay off debts, save money for an apartment, and support a family of six.

But it comes at a price.

“People envied my salary,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “But they don’t know how humiliated I feel.”

“This agency, which should defend our rights, controls me on the contrary. I am forced to remain silent on politics and to stay away from any national activity to keep my job.

Salma has become inactive on social media. Likewise, many of his colleagues have deactivated their social media accounts or created fake ones. Like Salma, they also fear talking about the Palestinian cause or against UNRWA policies inside their schools.

“We are even afraid to protest against this policy,” said Salma. “It was my dream job. It has become a nightmare.

In recent years, a number of UN employees have been forced to resign, including Suhail al-Hindi who was the former head of the UNRWA employees’ union. He was effectively deported in 2017 after the agency learned he was affiliated with the Hamas movement.

Al-Hindi, now president of professional associations in Gaza, has no regrets, however.

“I did not feel sorry for the loss of a job that negates the identity of UNRWA employees,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

“I cannot be separated from my cause. My job will not take me back to my homeland. Staying true to my right of return and my right to resist is what will bring me back.

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.


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