Getting U.N. aid to Palestinians a struggle in itself

Agency task complicated by the region's politics, Israeli army checkpoints

January 02, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SILWAD, West Bank - Getting food to impoverished Palestinians is no easy task. First, United Nations workers face the arduous ritual of getting trucks through Israeli army checkpoints; once they do, the intended beneficiaries sometimes reject the goods or sell them on the black market.

Humanitarian aid, like so much here, is a matter of politics.

One driver of a U.N. truck carrying 34,000 pounds of flour, sugar and powdered milk spent 90 minutes this week winding along narrow mountainous roads to avoid soldiers, only to find an angry mob after his arrival in Silwad, north of Jerusalem.

The people became upset that there wasn't enough food to go around, so they rejected it all in protest. The driver, Bahjat Joulani, drove to a neighboring town, Taybeh. There, a storeowner was selling bags of powdered milk from the United Nations that were clearly marked, "Not for sale."

U.N. workers said it was an unusually frustrating day.

But problems such as these are becoming more common as the job of providing humanitarian aid grows increasingly crucial in areas such as the West Bank, where the Israeli military began reoccupying most cities six months ago.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which cares for 1.5 million refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, faces a daunting challenge to help hundreds of thousands of Palestinians trapped in war zones, restricted by curfews and imprisoned in their towns by earthen barriers bulldozed across roads by the Israeli army.

U.N. officials recently pleaded for $94 million in emergency funds to buy enough food for 1.1 million refugees in the first six months of this year - a jump of nearly 30 percent since the army began to reoccupy the territories during the summer.

Nearly 80 percent of the 620,000 West Bank refugees displaced by Israeli-Arab wars in 1948 and 1967 are unemployed and living on $2 a day - statistics that, the United Nations warns, indicate a humanitarian disaster in the making. Studies have shown that an increasing number of people suffer from malnutrition.

Through it all, U.N. workers have to fight their own tangled bureaucracy, deal with an army that has fatally shot three U.N. employees in the past month and persuade the people whom they are trying to help to accept what is offered.

U.N. becomes target

The biggest complaint the United Nations has is that its employees feel threatened and hindered while trying to do their jobs. Fieldworkers say the internationally recognized insignia on their cars and clothes - U.N. in large blue letters - turns them into targets, making it more likely their trucks will be delayed or denied entry at military checkpoints.

Stories abound about food sitting in trucks, stuck at checkpoints for hours. Last week, Joulani said, he was barred from entering Silwad. And outside of Bethlehem a soldier sent him back, demanding that he return with a manifest written in Hebrew, not English or Arabic.

"They try to find any excuse not to let us pass," Joulani said as he drove by a military post near Silwad on Monday. "It's not just a security check - that I could understand. The army doesn't want anyone to help the Palestinian people. They don't want them to survive the curfews."

The strained relationship worsened last month when an Israeli soldier in Jenin mistook a cellular phone for a gun and fatally shot a senior U.N. relief worker from Great Britain. The army said Palestinians were shooting from a U.N. compound, and they were returning fire, which U.N. officials denied.

Israeli officials allege that the U.N. relief agency unwittingly protects and helps Palestinian militant groups. Gunmen, they say, turn U.N. schools and offices into hideouts and use U.N. vehicles to elude soldiers.

Army officials said that 23 U.N. workers have been arrested, accused of ties to extremist groups. Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called U.N. demands that its trucks be allowed to pass through army checkpoints without security checks unreasonable.

"UNRWA is not the enemy," he said. "We have a vested interest in seeing the U.N. succeed in its mission to help the Palestinians and prevent more poverty and more despair that will only hurt our own long-term goals. Why should we try to damage that?"

Capt. Peter Lerner, the army liaison officer to international aid groups, said that the United Nations has about 230 vehicles and 4,200 employees, mostly Palestinian, moving about the West Bank and Gaza on any given day and that while complaints arise, they are few when compared with the high traffic volume.

He also said the United Nations, unlike the Red Cross, does not coordinate its movements with the army beforehand, meaning that its vehicles show up at checkpoints unannounced and often without paperwork that could speed their passage.

At the same time, Lerner said, official Israeli policy is to "let the humanitarian agencies do all their activities. There is no hunger in the West Bank, and we don't want there to be hunger. We want stability."

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