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PRESS BRIEFING BY UNITED NATIONS AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

2 July 2002

Following Israeli military offensives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip earlier this year, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was making an emergency appeal for some $55.7 million to cover the cost of immediate humanitarian assistance and longer-term needs of the communities affected, the Agency’s Commissioner-General, Peter Hansen, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon. That amount was supplementary to the requirements of $117 million, which had been specified under UNRWA’s January appeal.

Since 1950, UNRWA has been providing a wide range of basic services through its education, health, relief and social services to over 3.9 million registered refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza strip. These services are concentrated in and around 59 recognized camps that are home to some 1.2 million Palestine refugees.

Mr. Hansen explained that during March and April, humanitarian conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had fallen to levels unprecedented in 35 years. The incursions into Palestinian refugee camps had resulted in widespread destruction and injuries. Military activities were continuing, and UNRWA was facing the challenge of responding to the increased health, shelter and education needs under conditions of closures and curfews. The needs were increasing at a much faster rate than the donors’ contributions, and he hoped for a generous response to the new appeal.

The conditions of life in Gaza and the West Bank had deteriorated dramatically, with about half the population living in absolute poverty, he continued. Among the problems were economic decay, massive unemployment and lack of freedom of movement. The Agency was experiencing increased problems of supply and unprecedented difficulties in movement of personnel. On some occasions, only some 25 to 30 per cent of staff had been able to gain access to the West Bank to get to work.

The amount that UNRWA was appealing for was intended to cover relief and reconstruction needs at Balata, Jenin, Douha, Aida and other camps, which needed extensive rehabilitation. While the emphasis in 2001 had been placed on food and immediate needs of Palestinian refugees, the attention now was increasingly shifting towards emergency employment and health issues, building of shelters and rebuilding of the infrastructure.

It was very encouraging that United Arab Emirates, through its Red Crescent Society, had offered to finance the rebuilding of the Jenin camp, he said. UNRWA was currently in the process of clearing unexploded munitions and rubble there and taking down the structurally damaged buildings.

To a question about donor fatigue, Mr. Hansen replied that the donors were obviously very frustrated if they saw their investment destroyed. However, UNRWA invested not so much in the vulnerable physical infrastructure, but in the human capital, including health and education needs of the Palestinian population. It was important to continue investing in the human dimension of the issue.

Asked to comment on last week’s remark by the Israeli Foreign Minister’s legal adviser, Alan Baker, that refugee camps were being used to produce weapons, train terrorists and incite anti-Israeli violence under the eyes of UNRWA workers, Mr. Hansen said that, undoubtedly, there were weapons and munitions that had been produced in the camps, as had been the case in Jenin. However, in so far as the statement was directed against UNRWA, it was based on a fallacy that UNRWA had any civil authority in the camps, which it did not. In fact, in two areas, it was Israel that had the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order, and that was nine of the 21 camps in the West Bank.

It was interesting that Mr. Baker had also referred to Mr. Hansen giving the number of 500 fatalities as a result of the incursion into Jenin, he continued. In fact, he had never given any numbers and had never been challenged to produce them. Actually, it had been UNRWA that had interviewed the families that had members missing and checked that information against the detention centres. As a result, the Agency had come up with “as close to a final authoritative figure” as possible, which amounted to 54 several weeks ago. It had been UNRWA that was quoted on the front page of the Jerusalem Post saying that there had been no massacre in Jenin. He hoped that readers of Mr. Baker’s statement would take that into account.

Had Mr. Baker been accurate in speaking about UNRWA’s reform? a correspondent asked. Mr. Hansen replied that UNRWA had undergone extensive reform for the past five years. He did not know if that was the reform Mr. Baker had referred to, for during that time the Agency had not heard “any whisper of any need for reform” from the Israeli authorities. He had also not heard any mention of reform when he met with Mr. Baker and some of his colleagues several weeks before.

Asked for a clarification regarding who was responsible for maintaining law and order in the camps, he said that many of the camps were in the areas under Israeli sovereignty. The camps in area A were under the Palestinian civil authority; in area B, Israel and Palestinian Authority had joint responsibility; and in C, Israel had exclusive authority as far as law and order were concerned. If activities were taking place in those camps that were against the laws of the area, it would be for the authorities in charge to look into that. UNRWA’s role was not to administer or police the camps. It only had schools, clinics and feeding centres there. He could say with absolute certainty that there were no questionable activities in any UNRWA installations.

Responding to a suggestion that 14,000 UNRWA employees should be aware of the activities in the camps, Mr. Hansen said that not all UNRWA staff were based in the camps. Such personnel as schoolteachers would come to work in the morning and leave after the end of school hours. Even if they knew something, how would they report to the authorities? Those people lived in “a very exposed environment”, and they would be cautious about being considered collaborators. UNRWA would take disciplinary action against any of its employees involved in any untoward actions. Again, quoting Mr. Baker, he said that UNRWA staff could not be spies in the society. Besides, he was sure that Israeli intelligence would know much more about the events in refugee camps than a schoolteacher.

Responding to several questions regarding UNRWA’s previous appeals, he said that the Agency had been excessively optimistic in making estimates at the beginning of 2002. In 2001, it had raised some $140 million. Out of the $117 million requested for this year, it had only raised some $50 million. There was enough food for distribution for the next couple of months, but there was a great concern that the Agency would be unable to sustain its emergency employment programmes and the shelter repair until the money from the United Arab Emirates came through.

Asked about the reconstruction of Jenin, he said that clearing of unexploded munitions had been the main problem, so far. He was very disappointed that UNRWA had had to wait eight weeks for a response from the Israeli authorities, following several reminders that it was their responsibility to take action in that respect. In the meantime, the Agency had been forced to bury the munitions in concrete, because they represented a real danger. Two people had been killed, and several severely wounded. He hoped that Israel would cooperate in finishing that task. By the end of the fall, UNRWA was hoping to clear “the mountains of rubble” and begin replacing housing before the onset of winter.

Among the positive signs as far as cooperation was concerned, he mentioned an improvement in the cooperation on the transportation issue. As a result, a backlog in the goods “stuck in various places” had been mostly cleared. As for specific numbers required for the clean-up of munitions, he said that the numbers were changing as the situation evolved. Every single piece that had been uncovered had been documented, and a full account would be available in that respect.

Regarding his recent visit to Washington, D.C., Mr. Hansen said that he had been invited there by the State Department. There, following several meetings with high-level officials, he had found much greater understanding of the realities on the ground than he had expected. During some meetings, he had been subjected to tough questioning regarding the role of UNRWA in the area and he was glad he had had an opportunity to respond to some of the concerns.

The United States had been a good donor to UNRWA, he continued, and he hoped that it would continue to provide assistance. The United States had contributed up to 20 per cent of the total during UNRWA’s previous appeals. He did not get any specific pledges to the supplementary appeal yet, however.

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