Press Releases

    3 May 2002

    Gaza Facing Humanitarian Crisis

    (Reissued as received.)

    GAZA, 2 May (UNRWA) -- A humanitarian crisis is looming in the Gaza Strip as the Israeli authorities continue to block the entry of basic foodstuffs, medicines and fuel, and refuse to relax internal restrictions on the movement of all goods and personnel.

    The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has lodged a number of protests with Israel since the closure of the commercial entry point at Karni on 29 March. The Agency acknowledges the efforts of the local Israeli liaison officers from the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this respect; however, the Israeli authorities have continued to rule against UNRWA for "reasons of security" and there has been scant improvement in the situation.

    The Agency's humanitarian operations are being severely hampered. UNRWA requires 70,000 litres of diesel and 30,000 of benzene a month to enable it to run its operations. The Agency's diesel reserves were substantially depleted on 29 April, and reserves of benzene are very low. Keeping the Agency's operations running by purchasing fuel on the open market involves undue and unnecessary extra costs for a humanitarian budget that should be destined for relief.

    The latest round of UNRWA's emergency food distribution programme is in jeopardy. Some 127,000 of the most needy families are due to receive a food package in May; this will not be possible unless permission is granted to transport the hundreds of containers currently trapped at the Israeli port of Ashdod. Of the 364 containers of rice, sunflower oil, red lentils, wheat flour and sardines which have arrived in Israel since the beginning of April, only 26 have been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip. Consequently, approximately 600,000 refugees who depend on UNRWA's assistance will not receive their basic food rations on time.

    Building materials, including cement and base course, are also in short supply. A number of emergency projects have already been suspended, including the construction of over a hundred refugee shelters and several new school buildings, and the paving of roads and alleyways in one of the refugee camps.

    Faced with diminishing supplies and the fear of a major Israeli incursion, the residents of Gaza, 65 per cent of whom now live on less than $2 per day, have begun to stockpile basic foodstuffs and medicines, pushing prices up further and compounding feelings of despair.

    Even before the recent closure of Karni, UNRWA operations were already severely impeded by the strict regime of internal blockades. These are now a fact of life for the Agency and the entire 1.1 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. Since 3 March, the Strip has been divided into three by checkpoints which are only lifted for approximately 2 hours per day. Short notice is given of opening times, and no movement of goods or personnel -- including the lifesaving transport of patients and medicines -- is possible when the blockades are in place. Approximately 750 UNRWA staff members -- 10 per cent of all staff -- have been prevented from reaching their duty stations, disrupting the work of health centres, schools and Headquarters and Field Office departments.

    The southern area of the Gaza Strip is now virtually cut off from all specialist health services, depriving over 3,000 patients of service. Even provision of basic medical services has been very difficult in areas such as the Al-Mawasi area in southern Gaza. Yesterday, and despite prior coordination with the Israeli Army, a health team was refused access to Al-Mawasi after being made to wait over three hours at a checkpoint in the area.

    Lionel Brisson, Director of UNRWA Operations, explained: "Life is already hard enough for those desperately poor refugees who rely on UNRWA to provide them with nutritional security. Now, not only their food supplies, but also their fresh water, waste removal and medicines are under threat -- all of which could have calamitous consequences for public health. UNRWA should be allowed to carry out its humanitarian work".

    For more information contact: Paul McCann on 08 677 7526/059 428 008.

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