Press conference by United Nations Palestine relief agency

The latest outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip was hampering the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from serving over 1 million Palestinian refugees registered with that Agency, said UNRWA Senior Liaison Officer Saahir Lone, at an afternoon briefing at Headquarters today.

Mr. Lone reported that, since violence broke out on 9 June, the Agency had been forced to close nearly half of its food distribution centres. Food distribution formed a large part of the Agency's services, and the closure of the Rafah and Karni border crossings had made it difficult to import any food.

He also told correspondents that heightened concern for staff safety had prompted the Agency to suspend part of its activities. After two UNRWA staff members lost their lives on Wednesday, the Agency's five international staff members - subject to the United Nations safety and security plan - had been directed to stay within the Agency compound. National staff members had also been asked to stay home, with the exception of social workers, nurses and medical health professionals who remain in the field to deliver critical emergency services. However, a majority of UNRWA's 10,000-strong "area staff" were teachers, and had been largely out of harm's way because of the summer recess.

Asked whether the Agency had an emergency food stockpile, Mr. Lone explained that a chronic lack of funding and restrictions on the movement of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip had made it difficult for the Agency to maintain a food reserve. "Certainly if the crossing points remain closed for more than a few days, it could become an issue for the Agency," he said.

The closure of border crossings had also meant that people needing access to health services must demonstrate that their needs were critical, and that medical attention was required within a day or two. That meant that "regular prenatal care and maternal care might not be happening, which can be serious if you have a pregnancy with a complication in the making", Mr. Lone noted.

He said the Agency had engaged in negotiations with Israel in the past, asking for the crossings to remain open for longer hours to ease the passage of food and medical supplies into the area. Although he was reassured by reports of calm in the area, he continued to be concerned by the status of the crossings, which could become more restrictive if the violence worsened.

At the moment, almost 9 out of every 10 people in Gaza were living below the poverty line, and 8 in 10 depend on UNRWA and other humanitarian aid agencies for their health, education and food needs, Mr. Lone explained. The Palestinian economy as a whole had contracted by 10 per cent last year compared to the previous year, and per capita income was 40 per cent lower than before the Intifada of 2000.

Last year, a major power plant was destroyed in a bombing, which Mr. Lone said was being rebuilt in stages. It was his understanding that heavy equipment had arrived from Egypt to be used for its restoration, but the extensive damage to the plant meant that it was unlikely to return to full capacity soon. After that incident, residents of the Gaza Strip have depended, in large measure, on electricity supplied by Israel. Power outages were common, and hospitals have come to rely on generators and alternate sources of power.

Earlier in the year, UNRWA - which has maintained an emergency operation in the West Bank and Gaza since the Intifada - launched an appeal for $246 million to cover anticipated emergency requirements, but, according to Mr. Lone, the amount received had barely reached the halfway mark.

While it was true that the Agency's work required coordination with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Lone said that, even in the absence of a Government structure, work could proceed as usual. "UNRWA is quite independent in its operations. In a sense, it's been looked at as parallel and distinct from the Palestinian Authority."

Reiterating a message delivered jointly by United Nations agencies last Wednesday, Mr. Lone called on all parties engaged in the hostilities to exercise their responsibilities under international, humanitarian and human rights law. The Government of Israel and the Palestinians were called on to facilitate access to and from Gaza for humanitarian staff and relief supplies.

For information media - not an official record