Humanitarian convoys reach Mideast

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 17, 2002

"It felt terrible to see so lively a city now totally empty -- turned into a war zone."

—Ramzi Zananiri

Humanitarian needs are growing as bitter fighting continues in the Middle East and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell ended his peace mission without a cease-fire Wednesday.

A "joint Christian emergency relief convoy" gained access to Beit Jalla, Bethlehem, and Beit Sahur Monday. Members of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global coalition of faith-based relief and disaster response agencies, participated in the convoy. Trucks loaded with relief supplies were accompanied by representatives of the Mennonites and the Jerusalem office of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), as well as personnel from the French General Consulate.

Members of the Danish/Icelandic Christian Accompaniment Programme assisted with logistics for the 25-vehicle convoy.

Food and other supplies will be distributed from central church-owned centers in the three towns.

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) -- another ACT member -- was able to safely get a three-vehicle relief convoy into Ramallah Saturday. Relief workers had to work with military authorities to gain access to the area. Food and water were delivered to two distribution points, St. Andrew Episcopal Hall and the Greek Catholic Church.

The two trucks and one van were denied access when they first approached the Qalandia checkpoint outside of Ramallah, said Ramzi Zananiri, executive secretary of the international Christian committee of the MECC. "Apparently our visit had not been communicated yet to the soldiers on duty. We waited patiently. I gave all the needed information very politely -- and in Hebrew which certainly helped. Some telephone calls were made and then the roadblocks were removed. The clearance was confirmed. We headed toward the churches.

"It felt terrible to see so lively a city now totally empty -- turned into a war zone. It has become a ghost town."

After offloading the supplies, the convoy made its way back to the checkpoint. At one of the main squares, they bumped into a tank, Zananiri said. "Machine guns were pointed at us, and a sniper from behind, coming from a building, shouted at us. We stopped, waited for them to come to us, waving our papers. Better not fooling around with these soldiers, as they looked very nervous. Again they checked and double-checked everything, and then finally we could continue our route."

Five members of the Dutch Unified Civilians for Peace accompanied the convoy, and Zananiri said they helped neutralize a potentially difficult situation.

An earlier convoy organized by the Association of International Development Agencies attempted to deliver relief goods to the Jenin refugee camp Sunday. ACT members participated, including LWF which sent two vans loaded with medical supplies.

Yet in spite of calls to allow humanitarian aid agencies access to the refugee camp -- where food, water, and medical aid are in short supply -- the convoy was allowed only into Jenin city and not into the camp itself.

The Jenin municipal authority will store the shipments until access to the refugee camp is granted.

Still more convoys are planned for later this week to Tulkarem and Ramallah. LWF and other ACT members will participate in those as well.

Meanwhile Augusta Victoria Hospital -- an LWF-affiliated hospital -- continues to carry the expenses of Palestinian patients who lost insurance due to collapse of the Palestinian financial system. The patients are on dialysis, or are being treated for cancer or other illnesses. The hospital continues to appeal for funding for medical care, medication, and supplies to accommodate the additional patient load brought on by the current crisis.

Another ACT member, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), and its partners have been offering emergency assistance to areas in the West Bank most affected by the ongoing violence. IOCC is providing food parcels, hygiene items, and blankets.

"The situation is drastic, and the need is increasing," said Nora Kort, head of IOCC's office in Jerusalem.

IOCC also participated in the relief convoy to Jenin Sunday, delivering medical supplies food, blankets, mattresses, and tents. IOCC is organizing the delivery of emergency food parcels to Bethlehem and Beit Jala in the coming days, Kort said.

Most of IOCC's relief activities will be concentrated in the northern region of the West Bank -- Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, and surrounding villages.

Kort said the initial phase of the IOCC emergency program will last one to three months, and will be repeated when additional funding is secured.

The MECC reported that unemployment and poverty among Palestinians have reached critical levels. Almost 1.5 million Palestinians live below the poverty line.

According to the MECC's department for service to Palestinian refugees, many in the relief community are seriously concerned that the latest violence in the region may lead to a complete breakdown in the infrastructure of health, education, social, and other basic services.

When Secretary Powell was in Jerusalem, a suicide bomber detonated herself within earshot April 12. Powell was several streets away from a popular Jerusalem open-air market filled with pre-Sabbath shoppers when the bomber triggered an explosive vest she was wearing.

The Church of the Nativity remains under Israeli control, with 200 or more Palestinian soldiers, along with some 40 clergy and several nuns, holed up.

Many local U.S. churches have launched vigils and other initiatives to pray for peace in the Middle East.

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