UN, Israel at odds over relief

The killing last week of a UN official in Jenin has highlighted tensions between Israel and the UN.

A week ago, Israeli soldiers shot dead a United Nations worker standing inside a UN compound at the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

The circumstances of the killing are still in dispute, with Israeli officials saying that Palestinian gunmen were shooting from the compound and UN officials denying that assertion.

But the death of Iain Hook, a British project manager, is symbolizing anew the enduring strains between the UN and Israel. In some ways, it's no surprise that the two entities are at odds.

To counter the threat posed by Palestinian militants, Israeli forces have imposed curfews and closures throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, creating a humanitarian crisis that the UN and other aid agencies are attempting to alleviate.

The killing of Mr. Hook, says Mark Dennis, a UN spokesman, "exemplifies the real difficulties we're having in providing humanitarian relief."

"Firing into a UN compound reflects a lack of respect for the immunity that the UN has a right to expect," adds Paul McCann, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has aided Palestinian refugees and their descendants for half a century.

An unflattering report

Three days before the shooting, the UN released a report that in part details how Israeli security measures impede the work of the UN and other aid agencies. "The movement of international and national staff within the West Bank and Gaza continues to be affected by a series of obstacles, including delays at checkpoints and frequent decisions by [Israeli] soldiers manning the checkpoints to deny access," says the UN's Humanitarian Plan of Action for 2003.

"At this time, we see that they're moving around freely on a daily basis, giving humanitarian support, foodstuffs - I think the facts prove otherwise," says Capt. Peter Lerner, who acts as a liaison between the Israel Defense Forces and international organizations.

Captain Lerner points out that most employees of Hook's agency, UNRWA, are Palestinians, "including some whom we would have to question." UNRWA does not administer West Bank refugee camps, but it does provide social services - including education and healthcare - to those who live in them.

The situation "automatically [leads to] friction between the IDF and the UNRWA staff working" in the camps, Lerner says.

Israelis see the camps as centers of terrorism, and several Israeli military operations over the past year have resulted in pitched battles - inside densely populated refugee camps - between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters.

The two sides fought one such battle in the Jenin camp in April. Israeli forces bulldozed vast sections of the camp; it was Hook's task to help rebuild hundreds of destroyed homes.

On the day of the shooting, Nov. 22, Israeli forces were operating in the area of the UN compound in order to arrest a wanted militant. A gunfight broke out, which prompted Hook to attempt to evacuate his staff. He was in telephone contact with the IDF's Lerner.

A little before 1 p.m., Hook left a message on Lerner's voice mail, saying that young Palestinians - presumably gunmen - had broken a hole in the wall of the compound. "I'm trying to keep them out," he told Lerner's voice mail, according to a tape of the message that Lerner provided to the Associated Press on Tuesday.

UNRWA spokesman McCann says Hook made a later call to another UN official, saying that he had succeeded in keeping the Palestinian youths out. "At no time did any gunmen or any guns gain access to the compound," says McCann.

Lerner is doubtful. He says he saw televised news reports showing bullet cartridges found inside the UN facility. "We're certain shots were fired from that compound," he says.

At about 1:15 p.m., Hook was shot in the back; it is unclear exactly when he died. The UN maintains that soldiers delayed the arrival of an ambulance, which Lerner denies.

Although the IDF has acknowledged that its soldiers shot Hook, saying the cellphone in his hand was mistaken for a pistol, Lerner says, "Maybe somebody else shot Iain."

'Pervasive closure'

In its Plan of Action, the UN demands that the Israeli government and the IDF improve access to "goods, essential services and employment" for Palestinians. It also demands that Israel allow "aid workers to reach those in need."

"Closure is now so pervasive that the West Bank is effectively divided into about 50 separate pockets, and movement between them is difficult and sometime perilous.... There are now between 70 and 80 permanent checkpoints manned by IDF troops in the West Bank and a permit system effectively prevents most Palestinians from moving on most roads and even from crossing certain roads."

As a result of these and other measures, the UN puts the unemployment rate at more than 50 percent for the 3.4 million Palestinians living in the territories.

More than half of the Palestinians in the West Bank are living in poverty, as are more than two-thirds of the residents of the Gaza Strip.

The Plan of Action is unusually forthright in saying that "[h]umanitarian assistance is not the answer to the deepening crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory." That is the plan's first sentence.

The second one is: "The crisis is fundamentally political - it will continue to worsen unless political decisions are taken to lift closures, curfews and other restrictions on the civilian population."

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