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UNRWA Faces Major Obstacles in Providing Aid to Palestinian Refugees

The United Nations agency aiding Palestinian refugees says it is being hampered by Israel in its effort to deliver humanitarian services, a charge Israel denies. The agency says it is finding it increasingly difficult to move its staff and goods through the occupied territories.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency assists some 1.5 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with food aid, education and medical services.

The head of UNRWA, Peter Hansen, told reporters in Geneva that getting aid to Palestinian refugees is becoming more difficult as the violence between Israel and the Palestinians increases. "We were able to procure four new, much needed ambulances last April," he said. "They only got on the road in November. It took seven months to register much needed ambulances, which were purchased to Israeli specifications, and we do not consider that a facilitation of our work."

Mr. Hansen says UNRWA has great difficulty trying to get its trucks through checkpoints in and out of Gaza, unlike U.N. vehicles used in other humanitarian situations around the world. He adds that permits for UNRWA staff, including teachers, office personnel and others, are often revoked and reinstated by Israeli authorities just before the expiry period.

Mr. Hansen says UNRWA recognizes Israel's security concerns, but he maintain that the security reasons Israel often cites do not justify the obstacles it places on humanitarian aid.

The Israeli ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Yaacov Levy, says his country allows freedom of movement to the extent it does not infringe on the rights of Israeli citizens. Ambassador Levy argues that Israel upholds its obligations to Palestinian civilians. "We respect these responsibilities and we have no battle or issue with civilians as such," he said. "We need to defend ourselves against those who masquerade as 'civilians,' but are in fact, terrorists."

Mr. Hanson of UNRWA expressed concern for the future of Gaza. He says that 75 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line. Such an environment, he warns, is the breeding ground for violent action. "That radicalization and that desperation that you see growing in the refugee camps in Gaza, where hope is an extremely scarce commodity, as is food, clean water and everything else, that makes just minimal life conditions tolerable."

Ambassador Levy says the economic conditions faced by the Palestinians is not Israel's responsibility. He argues that the billions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority should be directed to help re-settle the refugees. But the Palestinians say that the future status of the refugees can only be determined by a peace treaty.