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Israel Taxes Humanitarian Aid to Palestinians - U.N.
Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2002

Published on Thursday, September 26, 2002 by Inter Press Service

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations is accusing Israel of imposing arbitrary taxes on humanitarian relief supplies - including food and medicine - being ferried to Palestinians in occupied territories.

The levies charged by Israel were ''unreasonable and unique'', Peter Hansen, commissioner-general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees, told a meeting of donors Wednesday.

Over the last year, UNRWA has been forced to pay more than 2.5 million dollars - of what should be a purely humanitarian budget - in additional port and storage charges.

The taxes are part of a new security regime imposed by Israeli authorities, which have been battling a Palestinian insurgency in the occupied territories since Sep. 2000.

Hansen said the charges, ''which amount to a tax on humanitarian aid'', were being levied by Israel for searching consignments of food and medicine destined for the occupied Palestinian territories.

''This is just one of the many issues we have raised with the Israeli authorities in our ongoing dialogue aimed at improving the agency's humanitarian access,'' he added.

A spokesman for the Israeli Mission to the United Nations said Wednesday the allegations would have to be checked with authorities in Israel. ''We are going to look into these charges and we will respond,'' he added.

Hansen said the charges come on top of heavy losses caused by restrictions that Israel places on UNRWA staff trying to reach their places of work.

UNRWA is run mostly by 22,000 Palestinians who work as U.N. teachers, doctors, nurses and relief workers. The international staff, based in Gaza, numbers only about 110.

Currently, UNRWA serves about 3.4 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. A large proportion of them are children.

Its annual budget has been about 300 million dollars since 1994.

Major donors include the United States, the 15-member European Union (EU), the Nordic countries and Japan. The U.S., the largest one of all countries, is about 70 million dollars annually.

Hansen said UNRWA has also been forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair buildings that have been damaged during military operations. The agency recently submitted a claim to Israel for 535,000 dollars to cover the costs.

A U.N. spokesman said the United Nations has routinely submitted such claims to Israel over the last few years, but its government has never responded to them.

The World Bank says that Israeli damage to Palestinian infrastructure is estimated at between 600 million and 800 million dollars. The loss in gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated at about 5.0 billion dollars since the fighting intensified in Sep. 2000.

On Wednesday, UNRWA said that it lost over 72,000 teacher workdays during the 2001-2002 academic year because of restrictions imposed on its staff.

In the first eight months of this year, UNRWA lost 11,000 staff workdays at its health clinics.

Although it has tried to re-deploy staff so that they work close to their homes and avoid Israeli military checkpoints, UNRWA still lost more than 340 treatment days in its 34 West Bank health clinics from January-August this year.

The agency has incurred additional costs because closures have forced it to house staff in hotels when they are trapped by curfews.

In April, several U.N. agencies and international humanitarian and human rights organizations accused Israel of using food, water and medicine as weapons of war.

UNRWA said that although there was ''limited access'' to refugee camps, Israeli military authorities were selectively blocking U.N. teams from handing out food and water.

In February, UNRWA complained about the use of heavy weaponry near U.N. offices.

Retaliating against a Palestinian attack on one of its military bases in Jerusalem, Israel sent its U.S.- supplied F-16 fighter planes to fire deadly air-to-surface missiles at civilian targets.

The bombing, presumably directed at the security headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, also caused substantial damage to the office of the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Terje Roed-Larsen.

2002 lPS

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