GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Swallowing their pride, thousands of Palestinian government workers who have been living without salaries for nearly four months received food packets from the United Nations.
The 90,000 Palestinian refugees who work in the public sector used to enjoy a rare luxury in Gaza — a steady income. That ended when Israel and the West imposed a boycott on the Hamas-led government after it took office in March, demanding that the Islamic militants recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace accords.
The workers haven't been paid since then. On Sunday, 90,000 workers and their families joined the ranks of 635,000 other impoverished Gazans, dependent on the United Nations Relief Works Agency for basic food products. Previously, government workers were not eligible for the food aid because of their steady income.
Hamid Jibril, 31, received a packet of cooking oil, flour and sugar.
"This food would last for two or three weeks, but it will help, albeit temporarily," said Jibril, lining up at the distribution center in the Shati refugee camp, next to Gaza City.
A thin white layer of wheat dust wafted through the air as workers threw the flour bags from a parked truck to the dozens of people who gathered to collect their goods. Donkey carts waited to drive the goods home.
Sahar Hanoun, 32, had mixed feelings. She said she can use the 200 shekels (about $44) worth of food, but it hurts. "How did it come to this?" she said, turning away. "A respected government employee getting handouts. We also have dignity."
UNRWA has been providing this kind of assistance for decades. The agency was created to aid refugees from the 1948-49 war that followed Israel's creation and has been helping them ever since.
"This emergency assistance is to meet the very basic humanitarian needs," said John Ging, UNRWA Gaza field director.
The U.N. effort reflected the growing hardship in the Palestinian areas. The government is the largest employer, sustaining about one-third of Palestinian families.
Though Hamas officials have been hand-carrying bundles of cash into Gaza, it's not enough to pay salaries. The "Quartet" of international Mideast mediators on Saturday approved a mechanism for funneling funds into the Palestinian areas for humanitarian needs. However, the money will not go to the government or be used for salaries, and the aid isn't due until next month.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner is due in the region on Monday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders about the new funding plan.
Um Tayseer, a 52-year-old housewife, came to the distribution point without telling her husband. "He's a respected government employee. He's never taken a coupon in his life," she said, refusing to give her full name. "I came but I am embarrassed," she said, adding that her 14 dependents could live off the goods for only a week.
One object of the Western sanctions is to turn the people against Hamas, but even the embarrassment and the hardship are apparently not having that effect.
Um Tayseer blamed Fatah, the longtime rulers ousted by Hamas in January elections by voters fed up with Fatah corruption and ineffective government. She said she voted for Hamas, but has not lost faith in it.
"The world is used to the traitors," she said, referring to Fatah. "They want us to bring them back in again."
Jibril also voted for Hamas, but he understands the Palestinians still need outside help.
"The pressures won't make me regret (my choice), but are making me more realistic," he said.