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
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,''
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
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
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