Mr Peter Hansen, Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) — the largest humanitarian agency in the region - has issued an appeal to the international community not to let the West Bank and Gaza slide down its list of priorities as the world focuses on a potential conflict in Iraq.
Mr Hansen also issued a stark warning that UNRWA’s emergency activities in the West Bank and Gaza will run out of resources and come to an end by late March — including the feeding of 1.1 million people — unless donations are received immediately from the international community.
In December UNRWA asked the international community for US$94 million to support its emergency programmes in the territories for the first six months of 2003. So far no funds have been received and only a small portion of the Agency’s needs have been promised.
The lack of donations means that already UNRWA has been forced to cut the size of the ration package it gives to 120,000 refugee families in Gaza while in the West Bank 1,600 emergency staff are to be laid off and payment for refugee hospitalisation is being stopped. Urgent humanitarian operations, including the re-housing of refugees made homeless by Israel’s military, will have to be cancelled just as demolition operations are escalating. In Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip 79 shelters were completely destroyed in January alone. Supplies of food, tents and cash to those made homeless cannot continue unless donations are forthcoming.
Since September 2000 UNRWA has distributed over two million family food parcels, doubled the number of patients it treats in its clinics and provided work for thousands of Palestinian breadwinners all in an effort to alleviate the worst effects of the violence, curfews and closures on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite these efforts, two-thirds of the population is living in dire poverty, thousands have been made homeless by demolitions or injured by fighting and malnutrition rates for children have reached crisis levels.
Peter Hansen said: “We are scraping the bottom of every barrel and stretching every dollar we have, but without immediate donations our emergency operations are going to grind to a halt. The cutbacks come at a time when the uncertain regional situation makes it ever-more imperative that we maintain a lifeline to the refugees in the territories. And yet the paradox is that our emergency funding for the year may be threatened because donors are holding back to see what is needed in Iraq.”
“The uncertainty on the political front in the West Bank and Gaza means that this is no time to allow humanitarian efforts to stall. The international community must not allow the occupied territory to slip from its sight. Tensions are too high and the need too great.”