Palestinians in south Lebanon protest UN aid cuts

A Palestinian refugee boy holds a banner saying: "It's my right to receive treatment", during the protest

Palestinians launched fresh protests over U.N. aid cuts in south Lebanon Friday, warning of civil disobedience in all refugee camps if UNRWA fails to resume vital services critical to their livelihoods, including full medical coverage. “We demand UNRWA bear all the costs of hospitalization, accept all [medical] cases without exception and cancel the percentage imposed [on Palestinians] to pay for hospitalization,” Palestinian Popular Committee member Abed Abu Salah said outside an UNRWA office in Sidon.

Palestinians from the southern Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh and the nearby Mieh Mieh camp rallied outside the agency’s office in Sidon, holding banners demanding it reconsider the aid cuts.

Abu Ishaq Maqdah, head of the Palestinian Relief Unions in the Sidon camps, underlined that all options are open to challenge UNRWA’s decision, including civil disobedience.

“People are dying at the doors of hospitals,” Maher Shabayta, the secretary of the Fatah Movement, said.

He vowed to continue the protests to press UNRWA to reverse its aid cuts, including the 15 percent that patients are forced to pay to enter hospitals.

Shabayta emphasized that “Palestinians are standing one line against the arbitrary decision.”

Protests and strikes in camps across Lebanon were sparked after a 23-year-old man from the Burj al-Shemali camp in Tyre set himself on fire Tuesday near a clinic to protest the cuts. There are about 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

UNRWA has been struggling with severe financial difficulties for some time. Funding shortages put the school year at risk in early September and the lack of money has forced new rules concerning funding of health care.

Under the new arrangement, which came into effect at the start of the new year, every Palestinian refugee receiving medical services or hospitalization through UNRWA must pay 5 percent of their bill at hospitals run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and 15 percent at government hospitals. Previously, UNRWA covered those expenses.

UNRWA has, however, increased coverage for surgeries undertaken at private hospitals, although numbers of those cases are low.

“What is happening is not linked to the financial crisis; it is rather a political decision to eliminate UNRWA as a witness to the sufferings of Palestinian refugees,” Fouad Othman, an official from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Sidon, told demonstrators.

The demonstrators handed a letter to the manager of UNRWA’s office in Sidon Ibrahim Khatib that included their demands, which was addressed to UNRWA’s Lebanon chief Matthias Schmale.

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