|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
If international humanitarian law applies anywhere, it is in the occupied Palestinian territories. Why, then, is it not being respected? In Geneva, Dina Ezzat examines Israeli violations, and the efforts being made to mitigate the most pernicious effects of an intolerable occupation
Emergency, institutionalisedA special emergency appeal launched by UNRWA suggests that Palestinians are still paying an unbearable price for the Intifada even as the resumption of negotiations is being discussed
"Even if you were to have peace tomorrow between Palestinians and Israelis, relief operations have to continue at the emergency level for many years to make up for the damage that has been done to Palestinian life and economy during the past few months," Peter Hansen, the high commissioner for the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Near East (UNRWA) reportedly told a closed meeting held a few days ago in Geneva for concerned and donor countries.
The meeting was convened on the occasion of UNRWA's third emergency appeal since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada on 28 September of last year. UNRWA previously made emergency appeals in November 2000 and April 2001, raising almost $70 million. This sum enabled the humanitarian agency to provide monthly food parcels to over 200,000 refugee and non- refugee families in Gaza and the West Bank and, according to UNRWA's account, create 230,000 work opportunity days to help the poorest breadwinners support their families.
In Geneva late last month, UNRWA was hoping to encourage donor countries to provide a further $77 million, which the relief agency plans to use during the coming months.
"It is a very bad situation that we are talking about in the occupied territories and the Palestinian Authority territories. We are talking about a situation -- a Palestinian economy that has gone down by 80 per cent... where access to humanitarian aid is sometimes blocked by the Israeli authorities for what they say are serious security concerns," one UNRWA source said.
Indeed, in its official press release on the appeal, UNRWA states that "the desperate condition of Palestine refugees in Gaza and the West Bank after nine months of conflict has compelled" the agency to appeal to the international community for $77 million in emergency funds. This amount, UNRWA explains, will allow the purchase and distribution of urgently needed food aid and medical supplies as well as the establishment of emergency work programmes "so that the Palestinian refugees will not feel that they have been abandoned by the international community"
UNRWA's detailed plan includes providing 217,000 families with basic food aid and creating around 700,000 emergency job opportunities. It is also planning emergency cash assistance for over 5,000 desperately poor families and the reconstruction of some 200 refugee shelters that have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and bulldozing operations. UNRWA also aims to create extra school days for over 200,000 refugee children to replace some of the days lost due to closures and sieges, besides organising summer activities for children traumatised by the fighting.
According to Hansen, "the political background against which the appeal is being launched continues to be characterised by considerable uncertainty about prospects for the restoration of peaceful conditions and the resumption of economic activity at an adequate level in the Palestinian areas."
One UNRWA official working in Gaza elaborated: "We are not at all talking about new projects that this money is going to be used for. What we are talking about here is essential survival programmes for families who are living under closure, whose houses are being demolished, who have no freedom of movement and no access to job opportunities." He added: "They have lost everything they have, including their olive trees, which will need years of care before they can yield again."
As has always been the case for UNRWA during its 50-odd years of work with Palestinian refugees, however, the money is trickling in with difficulty. The agency's decision to launch its appeal in Geneva, "the capital of humanitarian activities," was meant to attract as much attention as possible from donors and as much support as possible from humanitarian organisations. "We realised that the missions of, for example, the European donor countries to the UN Geneva-based humanitarian organisations are more open-minded about aid to Palestinians than their foreign ministries, which are more willing to talk aid to Bosnia," an agency source said.
Some of the key states, however, were absent from the 22 June appeal meeting, scheduled long ago. Those who did attend, furthermore, were not as forthcoming with donations as they were with criticism of other donors.
"It was not a fight, but it was a situation where the Arab countries were suggesting that the international community is not doing enough, and the non-Arab donors were suggesting that the Arab states are not doing enough," an observer commented.
Hansen believes that the Arabs could do more, but are doing much better than other donors. "By the UN's criteria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are paying more to the regular, and sometimes the emergency, UNRWA budget than the European countries," he said. UNRWA's high commissioner has even undertaken a four-leg European tour to secure more allocations to the emergency appeal.
Such appeals aside, the budget has always been the principal handicap to the scope of its operations, particularly in the past seven years. Several donor countries have repeatedly attempted to slash their contributions under the pretext that aid to the PA would make the agency's role superfluous. While UNRWA has struggled on, its existence has never seemed more precarious than in the post-Oslo phase.
The agency was launched in December 1949, a little over a year after the massive Palestinian dispossession of 1948. Initially envisioned as a short-term measure, the agency became operational in the field on 1 May 1950. Since then, it has assumed responsibility for providing emergency relief for close to four million registered Palestine refugees who continue to suffer extreme hardship more than 50 years after their original dispossession.
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