RAMALLAH, 10 May 2011 (IRIN) - The delivery of humanitarian aid to the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) has been hampered by severe restrictions on staff movements, hurting the quality, scope and sustainability of operations, say the UN and international NGOs.
"Delays in the movement of staff that are guiding, monitoring and executing programmes mean delays in implementation and rising costs," UN Humanitarian Coordinator for OPT, Max Gaylard, said. "Services to beneficiaries may be delayed and their quality reduced."
OPT has some of the largest humanitarian operations in the world. Every day, thousands of aid workers battle with the physical barriers of occupation just like the 4.5 million Palestinians residents. The barriers include nearly 1,000 internal West Bank checkpoints, roadblocks, earth mounds and trenches that are part of Israel's complex security regime.
Israel says the checkpoints are necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens against terror attacks.
About 17,000 UN staff, including about 450 internationals, work for nine UN humanitarian entities in the OPT. About 16,000 work for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and another 1,000 for other UN agencies. More than 100 INGOs, employing a few thousand staff, along with thousands of national NGOs, work in the OPT, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
INGOs estimate the restrictions on OPT staff cost about US$4.5 million annually, excluding additional costs incurred by implementing partners.
In 2010, there was a monthly average of 92 permanently and partially staffed checkpoints, 519 staffed obstacles, and an additional 414 "flying" or random checkpoints in the West Bank, reports OCHA. [ http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_the_humanitarian_monitor_2011_... ]
The total area of the West Bank, 5,860 sqkm, ranks 171st globally in terms of size, while Gaza is just 365 sqkm.
Over the past six months, the number of fixed internal West Bank checkpoints has decreased, according to OCHA, although the number of "flying" West Bank checkpoints has increased, making planning increasingly difficult.
Aid workers faced an average of 44 incidents of delayed or denied access at West Bank checkpoints per month in 2010, 32 of which occurred at Jerusalem periphery checkpoints.
Checkpoints on the "separation barrier", particularly those along the Jerusalem periphery, are more problematic for humanitarian staff and for Palestinians to cross, because Israelis view this as the point of entry into the state of Israel.
On average, about 385 UN and 123 INGO vehicles, which also carry staff, cross eight of the 21 fixed checkpoints located along the Jerusalem periphery daily to enter and exit the West Bank. An average 29 staff days were lost per month in 2010 to "checkpoint incidents", says OCHA.
In 2010, 98 roadblocks were removed throughout the West Bank, leaving 16 operational, most of them normally open, according to the Israeli coordinator of government activities in the (Palestinian) territories (COGAT).
INGOs say the restrictions on their movement reduce the effective delivery of aid to some of the most vulnerable Palestinian communities, mainly those in Gaza and in Area 'C' of the West Bank.
"The biggest problem for us is getting permits for national staff to leave Gaza and travel to the West Bank and East Jerusalem," says Oxfam international policy officer Lara El-Jazairi. "It's impossible to get permits for West Bank nationals to enter Gaza."
Oxfam has been forced to hire more international staff and to duplicate positions, increasing costs and spending funds that could otherwise be spent on project implementation, says El-Jazairi.
The UN has been told by Israeli authorities that the Israeli Crossing Points Administration (CPA), a civilian department linked to the Defence Ministry, will eventually operate all checkpoints from 2012.
The CPA requires regular searches of UN vehicles, unless the driver is an international staff member, and national UN staff are subject to body searches and required to walk through the crossings the CPA operates. [ http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_jerusalem_report_2011_03_23_we... ]
"We are working for the OPT, but Israel has full control in the West Bank and Gaza," says Gaylard, and "Nothing and no-one goes in or out of the West Bank or Gaza for UN purposes without approval from the Israeli government."
UN humanitarian supplies are basically food and medication. INGOs also face greater difficulties in obtaining necessary visas and work permits from the Israeli Interior Ministry than UN internationals under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, says Gaylard.
Wael Qadan, director of planning and development with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Ramallah, says the restrictions have hit East Jerusalem's medical sector hardest. PRCS operates emergency ambulance services in East Jerusalem.
"Two-thirds of PRCS staff in East Jerusalem are from the West Bank, and every three months their permits must be renewed," says Qadan. "There are frequent delays and some are denied, which means ambulance services in East Jerusalem are understaffed."
"Only doctors can cross checkpoint in a vehicle; all medical staff must cross on foot, exposed to the elements," says Jihad Alouni, a physical therapist from Augusta Vitoria Hospital. "The process is gruelling, and there are often delays," he says.
This report online: http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportID=92674