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UNICEF: Situation of Palestinian Women, Children Worsens

The U.N. Children's Fund says the situation of Palestinian women and children has worsened since the militant group Hamas won legislative elections in January.

UNICEF says some 350,000 Palestinian children are suffering from severe malnutrition, a condition that can stunt the growth of children under five.

"The situation is extremely worrying for the newborn babies," said spokesman Damien Personnaz. "You have to know that , for instance, in major Gaza hospitals, about one-in-three newborns admitted in newborn care units are dying. This is just because the medical facilities there are just collapsing. It is extremely difficult for them to get medicines. It is extremely difficult to get good medical equipment."

UNICEF warns its stock of basic food items is extremely low. It says children living in areas of northern Gaza go to school every day under increased threat and risks. It says psychological problems are rising because of continuing violence.

Since Hamas was elected, Personnaz says, the Israeli authorities have increased roadblocks and checkpoints. And, this, he says, is hampering aid efforts. He adds that, since the election, contributions from governments have dried up.

Hamas' victory poses a dilemma for the United States and Europe, which consider the group a terrorist organization. In a report issued earlier this week, the World Bank warned that projected cuts in economic aid to Palestinians could cause deep economic depression. International donors and Israel say humanitarian aid will continue to Palestinians through non-governmental organizations.

The United States has said it will not provide aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government, because of the organization's record of terrorism, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the Bush administration is looking for ways to increase U.S. humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.

Spokesman Personnaz says UNICEF urgently needs $6.2 million, but is having great difficulty raising this money.

"If we do not get our money, we will have to cut accordingly," he said. "So, if we get only one-third of the needed money, we will have to only carry out one-third of the planned programs. That is very simple, which means if you want to take care of 350,000 children who are heavily stunted, than you will only be able to take care of 70,000. If you want to immunize the whole children's population against measles, then you cannot. And, then you will have to reduce your targets or your objectives."

Personnaz says donors should consider the consequences of withholding money from this vulnerable population.