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OPT: In the holy land, humanitarian news isn't in the news

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By Stephen Huba and Jonathan Frerichs
Baltimore, January 30, 2002 - "For the first time in my life, I see people begging for food ... looking through garbage. I feel that people are starving ... like what you see overseas on TV."

These words are from Bethlehem. They come from a seasoned social worker, a professional cut off from clients, a citizen whose town was under curfew for 180 days last year and is again as 2003 begins.

"We bring hope through work and humanitarian assistance. Hope is very much needed by these people in these times. People are so tired, they're so hopeless. If you bring hope, that might change."

These words are from Jerusalem native Nora Kort. Kort directs a $2.6 million rural development project in 24 villages in the West Bank for Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). She is describing a population where 70 percent of the work force is now unemployed and 65 percent now live below the poverty line.

For humanitarians, the real news from the Holy Land these days isn't in the news. Upstaged by daily headlines of tit-for-tat violence, a decidedly unholy humanitarian crisis is stopping daily life for millions. There is deep tragedy among Israelis too, but the vast majority of those in dire straits are Palestinians, and their circumstances worsen month by month.

The voice from Bethlehem is Nidal Abu Zuluf's. He helps run a YMCA counseling, rehabilitation and vocational training program that is supported by Lutheran World Relief. Eighty co-workers are now deployed across the West Bank in towns and villages, schools and homes. Abu Zuluf supervises by cell phone and conference call, he says.

"The needs here are not ordinary because the situation is man-made," says Ms. Kort, whose family was displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. "As Orthodox Christians, we are called to serve the vulnerable, the needy, and show them our solidarity - spiritually, financially, and humanitarian."

IOCC is doing that in several ways: through the West Bank rural development project; through more than $300,000 in emergency relief - food parcels, hygiene items, medical supplies - delivered by humanitarian convoys and partner organizations; and through programs of emergency job creation, environmental cleanup and building repair.

In addition to counseling and rehabilitation work, LWR partner organizations in the Holy Land provide medical care to refugees in Jerusalem and at village clinics and run vocational and, increasingly, relief programs in the West Bank and Gaza.

In isolated villages throughout the West Bank, Palestinians are struggling to survive after two years of closure and violence, Ms. Kort says. These forgotten villages often go without public utilities, proper healthcare, education and adequate food.

They are the face of the humanitarian crisis behind the headlines. In places such as Deir Ballout, Yanoun, Rantis and Assira Al-Qiblieh, IOCC is providing assistance and empowering local leaders to offer essential services to their communities.

The Lutheran World Federation hospital on the Mount of Olives treated more patients last year than it has in five years. For just one of its specialties - kidney dialysis - the hospital now must bring patients in from checkpoints at the edge of curfew zones that carve up the West Bank. Dialysis patients are cut off from the local clinics they used before.

"Our village clinics are busier than ever," says LWF Jerusalem representative, Craig Kippels. "We are setting them up with EKGs and ultra-sounds now because they give the only medical care villagers can get."

Humanitarian workers in the Holy Land note that, while peace initiatives have all but disappeared, the violence in the news begets not only more violence but also more restrictions on hard-pressed families. In response to January suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, for example, all Palestinians under 35 years of age are to be confined to their own communities.

Movement to and from the country is also becoming an issue for some foreigners. International NGO staffers have been turned back at Tel Aviv airport intermittently in recent months. Those working within the country report that their visas became invalid at year's end. They were told to buy new visas, but these were not issued. Their status was to be reviewed, one said, each month.

The presence of foreign aid workers alongside Palestinian staff helps greatly in getting aid and medical convoys through Israeli military checkpoints to needy communities.

"We hope this year will be better," says Bethlehem's Abu Zuluf, "but the signs are all dark signs. We especially fear our fate if war breaks out in Iraq. Who can we ask for help?"

[Huba and Frerichs are staff members of IOCC and LWR, respectively.]