Gaza's Hamas rulers on Friday urged the United Nations to reconsider its suspension of food aid for Palestinian refugees, imposed after protesters stormed a UN depot.
The UN Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, stopped food deliveries after dozens of Gazans forced their way into the field office on Thursday, demanding reinstatement of a monthly cash allowance to poor families which was halted from April 1 due to budget cuts.
"This is an unjustified step from UNRWA," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP.
"There is a right of peaceful protest for Palestinian refugees," he said, adding: "We call on UNRWA to reevaluate its position and not to overreact to residents' protest."
The protesters were removed by UN security when they tried to break into a building, staff told AFP.
"We fully understand the impact of the decision to suspend cash assistance had on some of our beneficiaries," UNRWA said in a statement.
"Demonstrations during the past week had already forced UNRWA to close many of its facilities," said the UN Palestinian refugee agency.
"With the situation further compounded by today's actions, all relief and distribution centres will consequently remain closed until guarantees are given by all relevant groups that UNRWA operations can continue unhindered.
"This is a very regrettable situation for us to be in, as food distributions right now are taking place for some 25,000 refugees every day. But we cannot tolerate these ongoing threats to our staff," it said.
Abu Zuhri said that UNRWA staff were in no danger, as Hamas security forces had been posted to ensure their safety and the smooth running of their operations.
"We in Hamas and the government are preventing entry (of protesters) to UNRWA headquarters in Gaza," he said. "We are providing appropriate conditions for UNRWA's work."
The agency said donor support had not kept pace with growing demand from the five million registered refugees it is tasked with helping in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, forcing it to cut services.
"The agency's General Fund, supporting UNRWA's core activities and 97 percent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at $67.2 million," it added.
On Wednesday UNRWA announced that thanks to a Saudi donation of nearly $16 million it would extend special assistance to thousands of Gaza families affected by last year's conflict with Israel.
"Over 7,000 refugee families in Gaza will receive financial support from UNRWA to repair and reconstruct homes damaged during the November conflict," it said said in a statement.
"We have never before been able to provide this scale of support for war-damaged refugees."