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UN Warns of Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza Strip - 2002-05-03

A United Nations relief agency is warning of what it calls a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip if Israel continues to block shipments of food, medicine and fuel. The U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says it is trying its best to contact Israeli authorities to get needed permission to distribute humanitarian goods. But it says it has received little response to its efforts.

UNRWA says that unless Israel eases its military blockade of the Gaza Strip, the agency will not be able to distribute food to about 600,000 Palestinian refugees who depend on UNRWA for assistance. The agency says that last month, Israel allowed only 26 containers of food to enter Gaza out of the 364 arriving at Israeli ports.

Rene Aquarone of UNRWA says the agency's humanitarian operations also are in jeopardy because it needs supplies of fuel to transport relief items. UNRWA, he says, has run out of fuel in Gaza.

"Our trucks cannot run anymore and we are having to find fuel on the open market. All this kind of thing is very disconcerting because it is so unusual, and we are not used to this as the United Nations. We have privileges and immunities, we have working arrangements, signed agreements with all the countries in which we work, and so it is quite awkward and quite surprising."

Mr. Aquarone says UNRWA does not want to have to buy fuel on the open market because prices are high, and it does not want to waste donor money. He says there is no open access to other lines of supply since the entire Gaza Strip is completely blocked.

Israel's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Yaacov Levy, says he cannot directly comment on UNRWA's fuel situation. But he defends Israel's military blockade of Gaza as a necessity to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers.

"Last year around this time, I checked, there were permits for around 21,000, but as in recent months terrorist activities have increased, we are obligated to take much more stringent measures. Palestinians feel that they should be allowed, on the one hand, to enter Israel freely, but at the same time be allowed to import explosives, suicide bombers and suicide belts, and a nation which has the obligation to protect its own citizens cannot allow it."

Before the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, 120,000 Palestinian laborers traveled from Gaza to Israel daily for work. UNRWA says that about 65 percent of Gaza's residents now live on less than two dollars a day.