GAZA: ‘healthcare, water and sanitation teetering on brink of collapse’

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United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on Thursday announced it is unable to continue its operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories due to the Israeli cut-off that has seen the agency run out of fuel.

This followed Wednesday’s UN briefing meeting on the deteriorating situation in Gaza Strip and West Bank.

The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People on Wednesday afternoon heard updates on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as a report of the Committee’s activities in recent months, including a Seminar held in Amman, Jordan, on assistance to the Palestinian People.

Speaking for the Permanent Observer of Palestine, Nady Rasheed said that over the past month, Israeli occupying forces had continued with their illegal policies and practices against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, especially in the Gaza Strip.

On 16 April, at least 20 Palestinians had been killed in Israeli military assaults in Gaza and vast property destruction resulted.

The majority of those killed were civilians, including at least five children.

A total of 70 Palestinians were killed last month. Killings, destruction and arrests by the occupying forces also continued throughout the West Bank.

She said the Palestinian civilian population still faced a dire humanitarian crisis, enduring food, medical and fuel shortages as a result of the ongoing Israeli siege.

The intensifying fuel cuts had impacted all sectors of life and the impact of the shortages had become acute after the Israeli occupying forces cut fuel supplies last week following the recent attack at the Nahal Oz depot.

United Nations agencies in the Gaza Strip were also suffering; the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had received no fuel supplies since 9 April.

On 15 April, eight United Nations agencies had issued a joint statement expressing their concern and emphasising that the current situation was a threat to the health and well-being of the population.

The situation in the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory continued to deteriorate as a result of Israel’s unlawful policies and practices, she reported.

Illegal Israeli settlements, along with the illegal construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, constituted one of the biggest obstacles to peace and to the realisation of the two-State solution.

Israel also continued to impose more than 550 checkpoints and roadblocks throughout the West Bank.

As for the peace process, she said that, even though the Palestinian and Israeli sides had met frequently since the meeting in Annapolis, there had been no significant progress as a result of the illegal actions taken by Israel on the ground.

Nevertheless, efforts continued to advance the process and to conduct substantive negotiations on final status issues, and the Palestinian leadership remained committed to the peace process and continued to exert efforts towards the ultimate achievement of a just, lasting and peaceful settlement.

President Mahmud Abbas had just returned from Moscow, where he had stressed the importance of convening an international conference there as soon as possible as a follow-up to Annapolis and Paris, she noted.

President Abbas would also visit United States President George W Bush and other United States officials this week, and would consult on ways to advance the peace process towards an agreement with Israel by the end of the year.

She announced that to commemorate the sixtieth year since the 1948 Al-Nakba, by which the Palestinian people became a stateless and dispossessed people, there would be a conference on 29 and 30 April in Paris that would focus on the Palestine refugees.

On 5 May, a large photography exhibit on Palestine refugees would be displayed in the United Nations Secretariat lobby. The Committee was planning a special meeting in June with a panel of experts to address the tragic and long-standing Palestine refugee question.

Andrew Whitley, Director of the UNRWA Liaison Office in New York, said that 10 months of crushing sanctions on Gaza were stripping the civilian population of all dignity, reducing them to despair and to the status of beggars.

The policy of collective punishment had failed.

Instead, the crossings into Israel and Egypt must be opened.

The consequences of the stepped-up violence in and around Gaza were having a dire effect on non-combatants.

Fifty-three Palestinian children had been killed in Gaza since January.

Health care and water and sanitation services were teetering on the brink of complete collapse.

Because of lack of fuel, UNRWA was no longer able to provide fuel to local municipalities for pumping water.

He said the Agency would run out of fuel completely by tomorrow (Thursday).

Vital humanitarian and public services such as garbage collection would come to a halt.

‘We are on the edge of a very serious situation,’ he said, stressing that there was a shared responsibility to reverse the situation.

Israel was enforcing the overall curbs on fuel. To a lesser extent, various Palestinian bodies were also responsible, through actions of local militant groups and local associations of fuel distributors.

In the West Bank, a small number of barriers had been reduced, but that reduction had not made a material difference to the situation on the ground, he said.

The global problem of rising food prices was also affecting the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

UNRWA had been obliged to reduce food distribution from 850,000 to 650,000 people.

The Agency had started a school feeding programme, but the overall humanitarian situation was grave and unstable.

The representative of Jordan expressed his country’s deep concern at the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, when only a few months ago, much hope had been placed on a possible breakthrough.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation was unacceptable. The escalation of violence could not continue.

He condemned the excessive and disproportional use of force by Israel, as well as Israel’s collective punishment and targeted extrajudicial killings, the expansion of settlements and construction of the separation wall.

Egypt’s representative, noting that the Secretary-General and the Security Council had a particular responsibility regarding the current situation, proposed that the Committee write to the Secretary-General and the President of the Council to highlight the severe humanitarian situation and to request that the Secretary-General and the Council intensify their contacts with Israel to prevent further escalation and alleviate the situation.

Also, something had to be done to enhance the possibilities of UNRWA to continue to meet its responsibilities.

Committee Chairman Paul Badji of Senegal then reported on the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People held in Amman, Jordan, on 19 and 20 February.

The participants had concurred that it was unjust and unacceptable that the entire civilian population in Gaza was subjected to a total blockade.

Participants had also drawn attention to the dire situation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which tended to be overshadowed by the conditions in Gaza.

It was observed that the number of physical obstacles had increased over the past year.

It was stressed that the implementation of many of the vital initiatives and programmes, made possible because of generous donor contributions, was prevented by restrictions on movement and access.

A large part of the infrastructure and institutions built by donors over the years had either been destroyed or incapacitated.

The movement restrictions were the major obstacle to the improvement of the humanitarian situation, and calls were made for the immediate lifting of those restrictions, based on the Agreement on Movement and Access of 15 November 2005.

The Committee approved the provisional programme for the United Nations International Conference on Palestine Refugees, to be held on 29 and 30 April at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris.

The objective of the conference was to assess the present situation of Palestine refugees and examine the role of the United Nations in alleviating their plight.

Participants would discuss the Palestine refugees – the longest-running humanitarian problem in today’s world; the United Nations and Palestine Refugees; and international and regional efforts to promote a solution of the Palestine refugee issue.