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Palestine Conference Tackles Humanitarian Financial Crisis - 2004-06-07

About 350 representatives from more than 60 countries and 30 international organizations are attending the largest-ever conference on the Palestine refugee issue. The conference aims to increase humanitarian assistance to millions of Palestine refugees.

More than four million Palestine refugees are scattered across the Middle East. About a third of them live in overcrowded camps in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Lebanon.

The Geneva conference is sponsored by the Swiss government and the U.N. Refugee Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA. Organizers say it was called at a time when Palestinian needs are most severe and financial contributions are in steep decline.

Since the latest clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories broke out in September, 2000, UNRWA says the number of people in Gaza and the West Bank in need of food aid has risen from 130,000 to more than one million. At the same time, it says the proportion of Palestinians living on less than two dollars a day has tripled from 20 to 60 percent.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Arthur Dewey says UNRWA's emergency appeals are seriously under-funded. He says this creates immense problems for 1.6 million refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

"They do not receive enough food aid. There is a lack of funding to build them needed shelter,? Mr. Dewey said. ?There is no money for cash assistance to the poorest. This cannot continue. Donors must restore previous levels of assistance, so that appeals are fully funded as they were initially."

UNRWA estimates financial contributions during the past few years have declined by more than half. The U.S. government is the largest donor to the agency. Mr. Dewey says contributions from Europe and Japan have fallen and should be increased. He notes the Gulf States still contribute nothing to UNRWA.

Arab States are reluctant to help because they say they do not want to perpetuate the refugee status of the Palestinians.

The World Food Program currently feeds 500,000 on non-refugee Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. WFP head Jean-Luc Siblot says two-thirds of them are the so-called "new poor," people who have lost their jobs over the past three years and are finding it hard to cope.

"This is wrong to believe that the people who have lost their jobs, they are supported by the Israelis, by the Palestinian Authority,? Mr. Siblot said. ?A little bit. But, the Palestinian Authority does not have the resources today to carry out their welfare program. So, we are taking over a little bit on that."

The sponsors of the conference say they are trying hard to keep the focus on humanitarian assistance. But, representatives agree it will be very difficult to keep politics out of the discussions.