Danger clouds Mideast relief

Relentless Middle East violence is proving dangerous for humanitarian aid workers.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | December 6, 2002

"In aid convoys in which Mennonite Central Committee has participated, the convoy has sometimes been delayed for hours."

—Alain Epp Weaver

Relentless Middle East violence is proving dangerous not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but for humanitarian aid workers as well.

At least one United Nations (UN) aid worker was killed in a raid by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in November, and two more may have been killed Friday in an early morning raid in Gaza, although the identities of all of those slain-at least nine-had not been confirmed.

Last Saturday, a UN World Food Program warehouse containing more than 500 metric tons of food was blown up by the IDF.

The situation here for humanitarian workers has been a dangerous and difficult one for years but several workers in the region said in the last month the situation has gone from bad to nearly hopeless.

"I think it is fair to say that after the death of Iain Hook of UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) last month, most humanitarian workers in the occupied territories have felt more insecure," wrote Alain Epp Weaver, a representative of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), in an e-mail sent from Jerusalem.

Hook was attempting to evacuate people during an IDF raid on suspected militants when he was shot by Israeli soldiers.

Weaver also mentioned what he saw as unnecessary delays of food and medical supplies at IDF checkpoints.

"In aid convoys in which Mennonite Central Committee has participated, the convoy has sometimes been delayed for hours at military checkpoints, even after the convoy organizers had provided the Israeli Defense Forces with relevant information about the convoy," he wrote. "One routine cause for frustration has been an initial refusal to allow Palestinian staff with Jerusalem ID cards through checkpoints into cities and villages where we carry out relief distributions."

Weaver also noted dangers for humanitarian workers who are out in the streets after curfew.

"I think that it is also fair to say that information we share regarding our convoys with the coordination offices of the Israeli Defense Forces does not always get communicated in a timely, efficient manner with soldiers on the ground at checkpoints or in cities under curfew. This can have security implications: for example, when MCC was part of a relief convoy this past spring to the city of Nablus, which was under military curfew, our convoy more than once ran into tanks whose personnel clearly did not know about our presence in the city, despite our prior notification of the IDF."

The primary reason for the humanitarian aid crisis in the Palestinian territories, Weaver wrote, is the lack of mobility for Palestinians, who are living under severe curfews that sometimes confine people to their homes for days on end.

"If Palestinians could move freely from town to town, city to city inside the West Bank or inside the Gaza Strip, then many of their economic and humanitarian problems could be solved," he wrote.

Peter Makari, who is in charge of missionary work in the Middle East for the United Church of Christ as well as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said that he had four missionaries working in the occupied territories. Today he has two.

Two of his missionaries pulled out of Beit Shaour in 2000 after the YMCA where they were working was torn apart by gunfire.

"They were living in a situation that was very trying for them, but certainly much more trying for Palestinians," he said.

Makari said the Israeli reoccupation of the territories as well as "the permanence of the situation...are all signs that indicate a lack of hope," for the Palestinians, as well as for humanitarian workers who are trying to help them.

Donna Derr of Church World Service said her organization has also experienced problems, mainly "lack of access," "being held back by the military" and "inability to move people back and forth" for medical assistance.

Steve Huba of the International Orthodox Christian Charities said his group has similar difficulties with access to those in need.

"In light of the Israeli policy of closure," Huba said, "it makes it difficult for the vans to get around."

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