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Aid Groups Say Israel Impedes Relief Work

THE WORLD

June 11, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It's our right," said Dan Simmons, local head of the aid group World Vision. "We're just trying to get them to uphold [international] laws."

Israeli officials counter that the U.N. is biased against Israel. They also say the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to the West Bank or Gaza Strip because they aren't "occupied" territories as outlined in the convention but are instead "disputed" territories--an argument that's not accepted by the international community.

Agency directors say they understand the pressure that Israel's military is under and make every effort to comply with added reporting requirements, passport numbers, license plates, names and other details despite fluid field conditions. Even so, they say, they often reach checkpoints at the appointed time only to have soldiers hold them up for hours.

Some blame an Israeli military structure that seems to give a lot of discretion to low-level soldiers. Others say many in the military appear to view them as an enemy solely because they're providing aid to the needy from the same ethnic group as those the army is fighting.

"They think, since we're assisting Palestinians, we're a threat," said Don Rogers, regional head of Catholic Relief Services. "As we see it, assistance and some semblance of trust is the only way to have real security and to end the cycle of violence."

Still others say they suspect that their status as outside observers may represent a threat to some.

"When Israeli spokesmen say they're not impeding humanitarian aid, that's a plain, flat-out lie. This policy comes right from the top," said Thomas Neu, Jerusalem-based director of Americans for Near East Refugee Aid and a dean of the aid community. "We're witnesses to a lot that's going on in the West Bank.... And I think all these restrictions are a sneaky way to punish the Palestinians without having it show up on CNN."

Israeli government and military officials acknowledge that there have been some problems but say these are unusual times and they're doing their best. Avraham Lavine, international relations coordinator for the last three decades with the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, says Israel's long-term record on humanitarian aid is exemplary.

While coordination between different Israeli ministries sometimes runs into glitches, he said, his office is close to a solution on the visa issues. Palestinian travel permit issues, he added, are up to the military.

"The fact they're frustrated, I understand completely," Lavine said. "In some cases, we can alleviate some difficulties; in others, we can't."

The military's Levy added that the army is very disciplined, among the best organized in the world, and in no way sets out to harass aid groups. In fact, he said, the army is doing many things to support aid agencies' efforts on behalf of ordinary Palestinians, and has allowed a joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial park to continue functioning despite an armed attack there, he said.

Senior U.S. and European officials have raised their frustrations repeatedly with their Israeli counterparts at the highest levels, so far without much result. In the meantime, groups say they'll keep trying to do their job under difficult circumstances.

"In the U.N., we don't know of another conflict area in the world where we've had these problems--even in Kosovo," said the U.N. agency's Cook. "The problem is, the goal post keeps changing."

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