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Aid Agencies Accuse Israel of Depriving West Bank Palestinians

International humanitarian agencies say Israel is keeping emergency relief and medical aid from reaching Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization and the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees are calling on Israel to allow access to the sick and injured.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, says there has been a near total restriction on the movement of ambulances, in the wake of Israel's military offensive in Palestinian-controlled towns. Israel ordered the offensive last week in response to a series of deadly suicide bombings. According to the ICRC says only a fraction of calls for help can be answered, resulting in "unnecessary deaths."

The U.N. agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA, says 185 ambulances have been hit by gunfire since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. UNRWA chief Peter Hansen spoke to reporters in Geneva by telephone from Jerusalem:

"I keep appealing very strongly to the Israelis to allow us to reach these civilians in need," he said. "It serves no purpose I can see, except increasing hatred and bitterness, to deny the civilian population access to the minimum of services and assistance that UNRWA can bring."

World Health Organization chief Gro Harlem Brundtland sent a letter to Israel's health minister expressing concern about reports that medical personnel are being denied access to injured and the lack of guarantees for the safety of medical staff.

The World Food Program says it too has been denied access to the West Bank, where it provides food aid to some 371,000 Palestinians.

Israel denies it is preventing anyone from receiving medical assistance. Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Yaacov Levy stresses Israel is concerned about such accusations, and believes international norms should be upheld.

"If today, there is no totally free movement of ambulances across checkpoints, it is because of the abuse of such protective emblems by various Palestinian armed groups using them to transport combatants or materiel for suicide bombers," said Mr. Levy.

The human rights group Amnesty International reports that as of March 1 more than 30 Palestinians had died at Israeli checkpoints because they were prevented from receiving prompt medical treatment. Amnesty says that number has risen sharply since the Israeli offensive in the West Bank.

UNRWA's Peter Hansen acknowledges that both sides are suffering. "With the violence and counter-violence, hatred seems to be growing on both sides, and it augurs badly for any future talk of reconciliation, peace and mutual understanding," he said. "Every day that passes with this kind of situation going on will bring us further away from the day when we can realistically talk about people sitting down and working out a search for real solutions."

Mr. Hanson expressed hope that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Power's visit to the region next week will halt the escalating violence.