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Palestinian civilians in desperate need of aid, head of UN relief agency warns

Palestinian civilians in desperate need of aid, head of UN relief agency warns

The head of the United Nations agency assisting Palestinian refugees urged Israeli authorities today to heed repeated UN appeals for access by humanitarian workers to the civilians who are in desperate need of life-saving aid in the occupied territories.

"It serves no purpose I can see, except increasing hatred and bitterness, to deny the civilian population access to minimum services and assistance," Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told journalists at the UN Office at Geneva via teleconference from Jerusalem.

The UNRWA chief said he had written to Israeli officials numerous times without a response. "However, we are not giving up writing, protesting, reminding them of international law and international obligations, and we are refusing to let the situation become so normal that we even forget or give up writing about it," he said.

Mr. Hansen called particular attention to attacks on ambulances. "We are talking about four drivers being killed, three doctors being killed, 122 doctors and drivers injured," he said. "I would strongly suggest that when 185 ambulances have been hit, including 75 per cent of UNRWA's ambulances, one of our staff was killed in an ambulance, this is not the result of stray bullets by mistake, this can only be by targeting ambulances." The level of destruction, he added, "is really not what one would expect from a disciplined army."

At the same time, Mr. Hansen voiced his concern over the plight of the Israeli civilian population, which, he said, was "suffering very very badly too; it is a society under siege, living in fear, living in increasing anger." He warned, however, that the way in which "the policy responses are building up in Israel against abominable suicide bombers can only deepen the spiral of mutual hatred and greater violence in the region."

According to Mr. Hansen, one UNRWA staff member was blindfolded, detained for 56 hours, and given only "a few dry crackers" to eat after 52 hours. "These are completely unacceptable conditions for us to work under, and I must appeal very, very strongly to the Israelis to observe a minimum of normal decency, not to speak of the humanitarian treaties and humanitarian law that they are obliged to obey."

Welcoming the forthcoming visit to the region by United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mr. Hansen said, "We must hope that this is more than a glimmer of hope, that indeed things will be taken into hand so that this amorphous entity we talk about, the international community, can make a real impact on the situation, because if it cannot, I am afraid we are looking forward to, if you can imagine that, even worse conditions than we are living through now."