Palestianian workers strike UNRWA

Young residents of the refugee camp Jalazoun on Sunday clash with Palestinian police as they block the main road leading to the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Abbas Momani / AFP/Getty Images / January 12, 2014)

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian police used tear gas and stun grenades Sunday to disperse dozens of protesters at a refugee camp north of Ramallah who had blocked main roads leading to the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority.

The protesters, residents of the Jalazoun refugee camp, were trying to draw attention to a 40-day-old strike by workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, who are demanding better wages.

Police clashed with the protesters, who pelted them with stones, causing at least 10 minor injuries among the police force, according to emergency ward officials at the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah, where the officers were treated for cuts and bruises.

Farther to the south of Ramallah, residents and UNRWA staff at the Qalandia refugee camp blocked the main Ramallah-Jerusalem road, causing serious traffic jams for several hours on Sunday.

Palestinian police did not intervene to reopen the road because it is under Israeli control and close to the Israeli army-manned Qalandia checkpoint. The Palestinian police are not allowed to reach that area. The Israeli army did not intervene.

Residents of the refugee camps said the strike has closed schools, clinics and other services. They said trash was piling up in the camps, and they feared their children might lose the entire school year if the strike does not end soon.

UNRWA runs Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and provided residents with education and health services, in addition to cleaning. It says it cannot afford to pay the employees more money.

UNRWA spokesman Sami Mushasha said the U.N. agency is short on funds, making raises impossible.

The financially strapped Palestinian Authority attempted to mediate between UNRWA and its employees, but without success. The Palestinian Authority is having its own problems with civil servants, who called for a general strike Tuesday demanding better wages. Palestinian public health workers are already on strike for the same reason.

UNRWA union representatives said Sunday that they were forced to take dramatic steps by closing main roads leading to Ramallah, which they hoped would stir public support for their cause and put pressure on the UNRWA administration.

However, closing the roads seemed to have angered many people who were trying to reach their workplaces in Ramallah.

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Abukhater is a special correspondent