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Geneva Conference Promises Aid to Palestinian Refugees - 2004-06-08

About 400 delegates attending an international conference in Geneva have pledged not to abandon millions of Palestinian refugees. Delegates say the conference has succeeded in persuading international donors to increase their humanitarian assistance to more than four million Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East.

The aim of this conference was to raise awareness about the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees living in overcrowded camps and to get assurances of continued humanitarian assistance from the international community. It was not a pledging conference, but several delegations pledged $10.5 million to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees or UNRWA.

The head of UNRWA, Peter Hansen, calls the conference a great success. He says he is confident that considerable amounts of money will be forthcoming.

"Before we had this conference, there was a clear sign of a certain donor fatigue and a clear sign of many other crises demanding funding and money," said Mr. Hansen. "We have to face it, there is a limited amount of international funding available for this and there are increasing needs globally. Just from the non-planned declaration of contributions and the much greater contributions we will have in the future shows that there is a willingness to contribute further."

Mr. Hansen notes UNRWA is running a $120 million deficit in this year's appeal. He says financial contributions for the Palestinian refugees during the past few years have declined by more than half. This was during a time when the situation of the Palestinians markedly worsened.

Since the second Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, the World Bank estimates the number of Palestinians living on less than two dollars a day has increased from 20 percent to 60 percent.

During the same period, Mr. Hansen says the number of homes bulldozed by the Israeli military also has increased significantly. In 2002, he says an average of 25 Palestinian homes were destroyed every month. This year, the average is 140 houses a month.

Israel destroys the homes of known terrorists and has recently destroyed others it said were being used as terrorist bases in southern Gaza. Mr. Hansen says UNRWA has put up 400 new houses for Palestinians and another 400 are under construction. But, he says the agency no longer can keep pace with the level of destruction.

Mr. Hansen notes another positive outcome of the conference is the seeming change of attitude by Arab nations. In the past, he says, the Gulf States contributed almost nothing to UNRWA because they said the Palestinian problem was created by Israel and the west. Mr. Hansen says he believes these states now have softened their position and will contribute more generously to the Palestinian refugees in the future.