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UN, Red Cross Protest Israeli Attacks on Ambulances - 2002-03-20

The United Nations and the Red Cross have protested to Israel about military attacks on ambulances and damage Israeli forces have done to U.N. facilities in the West Bank and Gaza.

This time the wailing ambulance sirens do not signal an emergency. More than 50 ambulances are driving through Gaza City to protest Israeli attacks on medics trying to administer to the injured.

Since the beginning of the year, at least four ambulance drivers have been killed and more than a dozen medics wounded during Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians also say the ambulances face long delays at the checkpoints Israel has set up within the territories. Moawia Abu Hassanein directs Palestinian emergency services at Shifa hospital in Gaza City. He says the delays have cost lives. "Tens of our medical staff, nurses, drivers, waiting on Israeli checkpoints with very bad wounds and very bad injuries. It is terrorism and criminal situation against [humanitarian] law of Geneva," Moawia Abu Hassanein said.

Israel's defense forces argue that some Palestinian militants use the ambulances to transport fighters and weapons.

Ambulance driver Jihan abu Attia rejects the accusations and says he and his colleagues are just trying to do their job. "I was injured twice. One day I was shot with a 500-millimeter bullet in my stomach. It went out through my back. I went to Egypt to be treated and later I was bombed by an F-16 near the preventive security office in Gaza City," Mr. Attia said.

The International Red Cross has protested to Israel against the attacks on ambulance drivers and medics.

Israel's actions in the territories also have directly affected the work of Peter Hansen, the commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA. The agency was established more than 50 years ago to provide basic services for Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In an interview with VOA, Mr. Hansen says the Israeli military has destroyed refugee homes and U.N. refugee facilities in the West Bank and Gaza camps, including a school for the blind. "We do not like to see our schools bombarded, and we do not like to see our health centers invaded and vandalized. Most of all, and the center of attention, is the human damage done. The human cost, the absolute terrifying situation that these people have been living day and night with soldiers breaking through the walls of their homes, soldiers establishing sniper positions. Tanks were rumbling through the streets, lobbing shells into building and very intensive heavy machinegun fire all over the place. People were terrified," he said.

Mr. Hansen also complains that Israeli air strikes and military incursions have forced UNWRA to close down schools and job training centers.

He has also protested to Israel over soldiers blocking the delivery of emergency medical and food supplies to camps in the West Bank. "One of the greatest difficulties has been that Israelis have not cooperated as we would have liked them to to give access to UNRWA staff to go to work, the children to go to school, the ambulances to go to the wounded, give access to our transports on conditions that would be reasonable in a humanitarian catastrophe, to our transport of medicines, food etc.," Peter Hansen said.

Mr. Hansen says a prolonged period of calm is urgently needed. "It would mean people could get to work without closures. It would mean students could go to schools. It would mean we could get back to square one and start functioning some semblance of normality," he said.

For UNRWA, getting back to normal may be harder now because its resources are being stretched by the emergency. "We are very pressed and we are worried quite frankly that there will not be any food to distribute when we come to May. And the emergency employment program, which we established and which did a great deal of good, will have to be discontinued," Mr. Hansen said.

UNRWA chief Peter Hansen says this year donations from the international community have dropped significantly. He says UNRWA does not have enough money to cover the basic humanitarian needs of the refugees, let alone pay for repairing all the damage done in the months of fighting.