The ICRC’s large-scale distributions of relief aid to several hundred thousand Palestinians living in the towns and villages of the West Bank came to an end in mid-November 2003. Since June 2002, the ICRC had provided urgently needed aid to about 50,000 families (roughly 300,000 people) struggling to make ends meet. However, humanitarian aid is no longer the best way to help them. It is essential that the West Bank Palestinians’ basic rights under international humanitarian law are respected.
Right from the start, the ICRC made it clear that its assistance programmes in the West Bank could only provide a short-term solution. The aid distributions started following the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the West Bank in the wake of Israel’s large-scale military operations in early 2002 and the numerous closures and curfews imposed afterwards. However, what began as an emergency situation facing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians has now turned into a long-term collapse of the local economy. According to different sources, about half of the West Bank population lives on less than 2 US dollars a day, while the unemployment rate is close to 50 per cent.
“We have always stressed that the relief programmes in the West Bank were put in place to deal with an emergency,” said Susanna Swann, head of operations for the Near East region at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva. “In the long term, humanitarian aid cannot be a viable solution to the crisis in the West Bank. Israel has legitimate security concerns. Nonetheless, it must make it possible for Palestinians to deal with this crisis using their own means.”
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is the primary responsibility of Israel, the occupying power, to ensure that the population of occupied territories has sufficient access to food, water, health services and education. Any security measures taken by Israel to defend its citizens against attacks should not have a disproportionate impact on Palestinian civilians living in the occupied territories. Palestinians must be given the possibility to live as normal a life as possible.
The ICRC’s relief assistance in the West Bank targeted both rural and urban areas. In towns and cities, vouchers worth an average of 90 US dollars per month were distributed to 20,000 poor families on a regular basis. These vouchers could then be exchanged against basic goods in local shops. In rural areas, the ICRC distributed food and other items worth about 90 US dollars to 30,000 families roughly every three months. In total, nearly 40 million US dollars were spent on these relief activities.
Following the phasing-out of the assistance programmes, the ICRC will intensify its efforts to closely monitor the economic situation of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to Susanna Swann, “The ICRC will continuously evaluate the humanitarian impact on Palestinians of measures such as the confiscation of land and property or the seam zone barrier. Based on the information collected, we will contact the Israeli authorities and other stakeholders to remind them of their responsibilities under international law for the welfare of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.”
The decision to phase out the relief aid programmes in the West Bank will not have an impact on other ICRC activities in the area. Specifically, the organization continues to help improve access to drinking water and provide relief aid to Palestinian families whose homes have been destroyed. The ICRC also supports the emergency medical activities carried out by the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Israeli Magen David Adom.