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UN official says recent violence could overwhelm Palestinian health system

UN official says recent violence could overwhelm Palestinian health system

Recent violence in the Middle East threatens to overwhelm the Palestinian health care system, a senior United Nations official said today.

Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that system was neither prepared nor equipped to deal with such a large-scale emergency. "Electricity and water cuts, shortage of medicines and blood supplies as well as the inability of many hospital staff to reach their work place have rendered the situation even more desperate," he told a meeting of the UN World Health Organization's World Health Assembly in Geneva. "It will therefore require all health care providers quite some time and substantial investment to move from disaster to recovery."

The human costs of the Middle East conflict were difficult to measure, he stressed. Citing statistics on the numbers of people on both sides who had been killed or injured, Mr. Hansen said these figures failed to account for the "scores of women, children and elderly people who sustained post-traumatic stress disorders."

UNRWA's attempts to provide relief to those in need were hampered by Israeli policies, he said. The Agency had been denied access to camps, while its staff were subject to curfews and even arrest, detention and violence. "These are completely unacceptable conditions for us to work under and all States Parties to the Fourth Geneva Conventions have the responsibility to see to it that humanitarian law is respected and the provisions of the Convention are observed."

Focusing on health concerns, he voiced alarm over disruptions to vaccination campaigns. "It should be readily recognized that such [a] breakdown represents a threat not only to refugees' health but also a threat to countries of the region, due to the risk of disease outbreaks and cross-border transmission," said Mr. Hansen. "Micro-organisms do not know borders. They make poor targets for tanks or helicopter gunships. They cannot be stopped at military checkpoints."

In the face of these challenges, UNRWA required more funding to operate, said the Commissioner-General, stressing that "the recent massive military operations have generated new needs and demands that would require immediate financial and expert assistance from the international community."

"Above all, obstacles to humanitarian access should be removed and relief efforts should be facilitated if the generosity of the international community is not to be wasted," he said.