End of all aid work in Palestine?

Less than 24 hours after the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, left Israel, Israel closed all the borders with Gaza and refused entry to UN employees and international aid workers - this after the Israeli government had promised to lift restrictions on the Palestinian population as an expression of good will.

If this situation is not resolved quickly, the international aid community in the occupied areas could be forced to halt their operations in the Gaza Strip. Medicine du Monde France has already wound up its entire programme whilst other large, heavyweight aid agencies and organisations may well have to halt their projects for an indefinite period.

The whole business began with Israel requiring all foreigners crossing the border to Gaza to sign papers stating that the Israeli army no longer were to be held responsible if they shot and killed international aid workers, journalists or others. If we were staying near illegal Jewish settlements, militarily closed zones or in areas with military activity, we would be arrested and deported from Israel. There are very few refugee camps or areas in the Gaza Strip that would not be covered by this definition. All international organisations refused to sign this document. Shortly afterwards, the Israeli army informed us that all access to our workplaces in Gaza was stopped.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Since January this year, international workers in American and European organisations have been denied work permits by Israel. We are refused entry to the country. We are interrogated and deported. Papers are confiscated, PCs seized and, if you are unlucky, your offices and aid warehouses demolished or bombed. We have frequently been refused entry to the occupied areas since the massive military actions on the West Bank in April and May last year. Organisations use a great deal of unnecessary time in gaining access to projects or writing complaints to the Israeli authorities about their unsuccessful attempts to carry out their work in an effective way, according to the Association of International Aid Agencies (AIDA) in Jerusalem, which has about 80 large, medium and small international member organisations.

The feeling of powerlessness and despair in the aid milieu is now overwhelming. Israel is barely interested in making arrangements for, or allowing, our work or in having any form of international presence in the occupied areas. In addition, there is nothing to indicate that the situation will improve in the near future, despite the new diplomatic initiative, the so-called “road map for peace” which has now been put forward.

This policy, and the harassment of international organisations - be they the UN, donor groups, or non-governmental humanitarian and human rights organisations - is completely unacceptable. It has now come to a head in a period when the need for humanitarian aid is great and we have been confronted with restrictions and attacks from the Israeli army on a daily basis for the last few months. The international developmental aid organisations working in the occupied areas are responsible for a considerable part of, for example, the rehabilitation of the infrastructure, emergency aid, health, education, job creation, help for the handicapped and support to the agricultural sector. We target our activities towards poor and marginalised groups. The World Bank estimates that 20% of the poorest Palestinian population is totally dependent on international aid organisations for their means of livelihood.

The continuing restrictions - now on the direct order of Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon’s office - represent serious breaches of the principles of the Geneva Convention, signed by Israel in 1959. These guarantee respect for, and protection of, humanitarian work and state that humanitarian aid workers shall have free access to civilian populations in areas of conflict.

The Israeli policy is consistent in only one way: It continues to hinder us from effectively carrying out our humanitarian work in Gaza and on the West bank. Over the last two years, the international aid community has sent countless letters, statistics, statements and appeals to the Israeli Foreign Department and the Prime Minister’s office in Israel without receiving a reply. We have acted, together with Israeli representatives, through a work group for the carrying out of humanitarian aid. The work group was appointed to facilitate aid and development work in the area. So far we have not had a reply to a single complaint. This group - led by the USA - has had no effect. In addition, we frequently send reports to the Israeli authorities that command all military activity in the occupied areas. There has been neither response nor any softening of the Israeli army’s restrictions on our work.

We have no confidence that Israel will resolve the situation. At the same time, there is no possibility for us to enter formal status agreements with the Israeli authorities in the same way as the UN or foreign embassies and consulates. We therefore do not have the possibility of making a formal complaint about this development. We are not in a position to set ourselves up against the restrictions because there are no formal channels we can use and our presence has no protection from the law. Meanwhile, international developmental aid organisations are responsible for a considerable and ever increasing share of the total aid to Palestine.

Norwegian authorities have a responsibility to take up this issue at the highest political level with Israel. Norway leads the donor countries group for humanitarian aid to the Palestinian occupied areas. We demand an explanation of the new policy of total exclusion of international aid workers from Gaza. We insist that normal access is restored and, at the same time, that our access to important aid work in the occupied areas is generally improved. In addition, we wish to emphasise that if all restrictions against the Palestinian population were lifted, the need for aid, which both we and the Norwegian authorities work to alleviate, would be far less.

Ann Kristin Brunborg is field director, United Nations Association International Service and Gudrun Bertinussen is local representative for Norwegian People’s Aid in Palestine.