LIFT SIEGE OF PALESTINIANS – Oxfam urges Quartet

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International aid agency Oxfam said on Wednesday that conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are close to melt-down.

It called on members of the EU, especially the UK and Germany, to press the Quartet – the EU, United States, Russia and the UN – to end the boycott of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and put pressure on Israel to release confiscated Palestinian taxes.

The call came as the Quartet was meeting in Berlin to discuss the Middle East peace process.

Oxfam warned that with Palestinian poverty levels rapidly increasing, and basic services such as health and education crumbling, the chances of peace are diminishing.

Internal conflicts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been greatly exacerbated by the inability of the PNA to deliver essential services because of a lack of money.

Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam International Director, said: ‘The Quartet needs to take off its blinkers and see the damage its policies is having on ordinary Palestinian families.

‘Using international aid as a battering ram to force through political change is not only immoral but also counter-productive.

‘While the Palestinian Authority is bled dry by Israel’s seizure of tax revenues and the international aid boycott, peace will be a distant dream.’

Israel occupies the West Bank, where it is stealing more Palestinian land by building a giant Apartheid Separation Wall that is reducing Palestinians to a series of ghettos, their movement controlled by Israeli army checkpoints and gates.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops also surround the Palestinian population, turning Gaza into a prison.

In 2005 the Palestinian National Authority received $814 million in customs and taxes collected by Israel, plus $348 million in international aid and nearly $394 million from domestic revenues.

But since the election of Hamas in January 2006, two-thirds of the PNA’s income has been slashed, due to Israel’s withholding of taxes and the Quartet’s aid embargo.

‘These policies are having a huge impact, creating a social crisis that is hitting families in the Occupied Territories,’ Hobbs said.

‘Oxfam is calling on the Quartet to put pressure on Israel to release confiscated Palestinian Authority tax revenue and to hand over all these Palestinian funds.’

Since last year Palestinian poverty has shot up.

Two thirds of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories now live in poverty, a rise of 30 per cent in 2006.

The number of families unable to get enough food has risen by 14 per cent.

More than half of all Palestinians are now ‘food insecure’, unable to meet their families’ daily requirements without assistance.

The health system is disintegrating.

Public servants, such as doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers haven’t had a regular income since February 2006.

Their poverty rate has risen from 35 per cent in 2005 to 71 per cent in 2006.

According to the World Bank, public sector wage arrears stood at $572m by the end of October 2006.

As the outcry grew over the humanitarian crisis created by the siege, the EU increased its aid and set up a Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) to channel aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories while by-passing the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

The TIM gives support to some of the very needy but it fails to address the needs of the majority.

It undermines Palestinian structures, is ineffective and is causing divisions within Palestinian society.

Oxfam warned that this temporary measure risks becoming a permanent fixture, and the Quartet’s proposal to expand the mechanism would only hasten the decline of existing Palestinian structures best able to deliver basic services.

The Quartet’s decision to withhold funds from the elected Authority has convinced Palestinians that the Quartet is not genuinely committed to democracy in the Middle East.

Mahmud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has now asked Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya to form a government of national unity, following the recent Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah.

Russia said it welcomed the Mecca agreement.

‘I count on the Quartet speaking out in support of the agreement to form a new Palestinian government,’ said Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

Ban Ki-moon, the new UN secretary-general, said in Berlin ahead of Wednesday’s Quartet talks that he was ‘encouraged’ by the power-sharing deal that was made on February 8th.

Palestinian President Abbas said after meeting on Monday with US Secretary of State Rice and the Israeli Prime Minister Olmert that he stood by the agreement signed in Mecca.

He said it was made ‘to protect the unity of the Palestinian people and to safeguard their national interests.’

He said the meeting with Rice and Olmert was ‘difficult and tense’.

But he added that the meeting did not fail and will be followed by more meetings.

He said he would be holding a meeting with the Israeli prime minister soon, but a date has not been set.

• The ‘Palestine Times’ has reported on the latest situation of the Palestinians in Azoun Attma in the West Bank.

The life of 1,500 residents in the village, near Qalqilya, is becoming ‘unbearable’ because of the Israeli Wall on their land, and the gates that control their passage from one side to the other.

Last Saturday night, Adel Omar was seriously injured after he fell off his tractor and was taken by car to get medical assistance.

Adel’s friends said they implored guards at the Azoun Gate to let them pass through to the other side where the hospital is situated, emphasising the seriousness of his condition.

After phone calls and long negotiations, the Israeli guards finally acquiesced and allowed them to take Adel to Qalqilya Hospital. But he died en route.

Ayoub Atmawi, the secretary of the Azoun local council, said: ‘Our lives depend on this gate, as if we are all on death row.

‘Any emergency, as was the case with Adel, will be doomed to end in death, and the only party to be held responsible for this are the guards at the gate.’

A Scottish solidarity activist added: ‘The gate is cruel and merciless. It is made of cold iron and has no feelings, and whoever stands behind it will be the same – cold and merciless.’

He came to the Palestinian territories after hearing the story of Rachel Corrie, an American solidarity activist, who was killed by Israeli bulldozers in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

‘The Palestinians are powerful people; they can bear hardship, and they deserve freedom. This gate is suffocating them and is besieging their lives,’ said the Scot in an interview with the ‘Palestine Times’.

‘The gate has a long record of transforming the village into a prison controlled by gate guards coming from Russia or Ethiopia, and who in turn control our lives,’ said farmer Ahmed Omar, 70, who happened to be passing by the gate with his agricultural cart.

‘Even mules are not safe at the gate; guards like to shoot in the air when we pass to frighten them.

‘No one is helping us, even the press. You write about us, but it hasn’t done anything for us really.

‘We want an end to this suffering, and only Israelis can decide in this matter. Obviously they have no interest in doing so,’ Omar said.

In Qalqilya alone there are some 22 gates; there are another 72 gates in the West Bank, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).