22 August 2002


Press Briefing


At a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon, Catherine Bertini reported on an eight-day visit to the Middle East as the Secretary-General’s Personal Humanitarian Envoy.  She said that there was a serious humanitarian crisis in the region that would spiral downward if action was not taken.  She characterized the situation as a crisis of “access”.

Ms. Bertini said she had met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the highest levels, including Israel’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as Chairman Arafat.  Her delegation had been given full cooperation and access to all sites it had requested to view, including the Rafah refugee camp and the towns of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem.  While her more fully detailed report would be presented to the Secretary-General later this month, a number of critical points were already obvious.

First, both sides had recognized that the humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza was serious.  If it were not alleviated, the state of the people would continue to deteriorate.  The rate of unemployment was 65 per cent in the West Bank and 70 in Gaza.  Poverty and malnutrition were rampant.  Infrastructure was disrupted.  Health was deteriorating as a result of breakdowns in providing services such as deliveries of vaccinations.  Finally, the harvest and fishery industries were disrupted, and there was a greater than usual shortage of water.

“There was no disagreement about the cause of the situation”, she said -- “access.”  People didn’t have access to jobs or services.  The movement of people, goods and money were at a standstill.  There was also no disagreement about the fact that the restrictions were created by the actions of Israel’s army in the course of its duty to protect the lives of its people.  Israel’s Government, however, had come to realize that those actions were eroding the daily lives of the people.  It had made commitments to ease the humanitarian situation created by the lack of access.

First, she said Israel had agreed to limit checkpoint stops for ambulances to no more than 30 minutes.  Special systems would be put in place to ease the security burden on pregnant women and the seriously ill.  Seasoned soldiers and veterans would be placed at borders.  Access to water would be facilitated.  The previously agreed 12-mile limit on fishing rights would be respected.  Access would be granted to farmers for harvest of crops, particularly during the all-important olive harvest coming up in October.  Finally, the Government had expressed new support for the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Asked what form the support for UNRWA had taken, the Envoy said that first and foremost, both Israel’s Prime Minister and its Foreign Minister had been outspoken about needing to get help to the people in the area.  Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, had reported that restrictions on the movement of UNRWA staff had eased.

When asked to elaborate on how the situation could deteriorate, she said the effects of the unemployment situation and the lack of access were multiplying.  Families had no income, and their purchase amounts were decreasing.  Maybe they were eating meat only once a week or once a month now.  That was affecting the nutrition level, which in turn was affected by limitation in the availability of health services.  Not every village, for example, had a health centre, and people suffered when they couldn’t travel to a clinic.  Infant mortality had increased because mothers didn’t have attendant care.  Curfews had disrupted the travel of teachers, health care workers and service recipients alike.

In short, she said, this humanitarian crisis differed from others.  It was a crisis created by lack of access, and the providing of access was the solution.  The World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) had addressed the two sides of the problem.  A voucher programme had been set up to reimburse merchants for some food bought by those unemployed.  The disruption in movement of food supplies was also being addressed.  Asked whether it was more important to help the Palestinian people or to restore conditions to their pre-crisis state, she said peace was the most important goal in the Middle East.  In the meantime, the ability to go to school and work was important.

Were the international conventions being respected in the area?, a correspondent asked.  Ms. Bertini said that issue would be touched upon in her report.  Was the United States planning to cut its funding of UNRWA just as Israeli leaders were becoming more supportive of its work?  “I’ve heard strong support for UNRWA from the present United States Administration”, she answered.

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For information media. Not an official record.