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UN Warns of Cutbacks in Aid to Palestinian Refugees - 2003-07-15

Last month, the United Nations agency whose mandate is to help Palestinian refugees, appealed for millions of dollars in aid. But the response has been so poor that the agency, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, is now warning it will have to cut humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

The head of UNRWA, Peter Hansen, spoke to correspondents before the opening of a two-day seminar in Geneva called to examine the economic plight of the Palestinian people.

Mr. Hansen says in June his agency appealed for more than $100 million in emergency aid that was to last until the end of the year. As of now, he says, the agency has received nothing.

Although Mr. Hansen said the agency has received pledges indicating donors eventually will give $35-$40 million, he says that is far less than what is needed. As a consequence, he says many important programs for the Palestinians will be reduced or come to an end.

He says half of the 1.3 million Palestinians UNRWA helps will no longer receive food. He says nearly 2,000 shelters that were completely destroyed in the West Bank and Gaza will not be rebuilt. He also says emergency employment programs will have to be drastically reduced.

"We will maybe have to cut out some 5,500 jobs," said Mr. Hansen. "That translates into 600,000 job days that a person is employed and there will be some 33,000-35,000 people affected, mainly and usually head of family losing the job."

In addition, Mr. Hansen said the U.N. will have to cut down drastically on the number of people it gives emergency assistance to from 13,000 to 900.

The United Nations says the Palestinian economy is in a devastating state. Conservative estimates put unemployment at 60 percent. It says about 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

The head of UNRWA said that now, when the Middle East peace process appears to be getting off the ground, is a particularly bad time to be making drastic cuts.

"If the international community wants to send a message: 'Trust us. We are working on your behalf. We will eventually have peace.' That is not very likely that such trust will in fact be created," said the U.N. official.

Mr. Hansen said that the Palestinian people are becoming frustrated and angry and may soon lose hope that the outside world will ever be willing to give them the kind of aid they need.