Humanitarian Crisis Deepens in West Bank

RAMALLAH – "I heard voices, I turned around to look, and saw a group of Israeli settlers assaulting my brother Hammad," says Abdallah Wahadin, 82, a Palestinian farmer from Beit Ummar near the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

"Three of them surrounded me, while a fourth threw a rock at the back of my head. Lots of blood ran down onto my clothes. Other settlers then joined them," Wahadin told the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

Wahadin and his brother Hammad, 72, had been farming their land, which produces olives, almonds, and grapes, near the illegal Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin, when they were attacked on their way home. Their land in Beit Ummar is near Hebron, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.

Hammad Abdallah was taken to a local hospital where he received 10 stitches for a head wound and treatment for chest injuries.

Settler attacks against Palestinian civilians, and the occasional retaliatory attacks by Palestinians, continue to dominate media headlines on an almost daily basis.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has reported that an increase in settler attacks, as well as Israeli military raids, are part of an overall deterioration in the humanitarian situation in the West Bank.

"During April four Palestinians, including two boys, were killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and another 145 were injured by Israeli soldiers and settlers. The number of Palestinians injured rose by 40 percent compared with the 2008 monthly average," the report says.

"We have noticed a significant increase in the incidents of both settler and soldier violence against Palestinian civilians since the new Israeli government took power at the beginning of the year," says Ronen Shimoni from B’Tselem.

"This is probably related to an increase in settlement activity in the West Bank as the rightist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to establish facts on the ground," Shimoni told IPS.

The expropriation of Palestinian land for enlargement of settlements has proceeded at an accelerated rate since Netanyahu took office. New settlements, and the settler-only bypass roads which service them, are being built.

The full extent of settler violence against Palestinian civilians is uncertain as many cases go unreported.

"Only a small number of complaints is investigated by the Israeli authorities," says Lior Yavne, rights group Yesh Din’s research director.

"Conviction rates are less than 10 percent of cases opened due to what we consider unprofessional investigations. Often the police claim to have lost the paperwork or say they are unable to find the perpetrators," Yavne told IPS.

There has also been a sharp rise in the number of Palestinian children in Israeli detention this year, with 391, including six girls, incarcerated at the end of April, a 20 percent increase between December 2008 and February 2009.

Human rights organizations monitoring the situation of child prisoners in Israeli prisons are concerned about the lack of respect for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory.

"These concerns are related to consistent allegations of physical and psychological abuse during interrogations; denial of prompt access to lawyers and family visits; substandard conditions of detention, including lack of access to proper health or educational services," OCHA says.

Further fueling Palestinian anger and despair is the tripling of Palestinian homes destroyed by the Israeli authorities in April compared to March. According to OCHA, 286 Palestinians, including many children, have been displaced this year.

Israel says the homes were demolished because they lack building permits. However, it is almost impossible for Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem to obtain the requisite permits. Jewish residents of West Jerusalem obtain permits with ease.

Several foreign governments and Israeli human rights organizations have accused the Israelis of following a deliberate policy of Judaizing East Jerusalem, in an effort to prevent its future division. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their future capital.

Palestinians are also largely forbidden from building on large swathes of the West Bank that fall under complete Israeli control, even though according to international law and UN Security Council resolutions the territory belongs to the Palestinians.

West Bank Palestinians are also getting increasingly thirsty. The World Bank has just released a report, "Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development" [.pdf]. The report says water allocations, established during the 1995 Oslo interim agreement, fall short of today’s needs.

Two-and-a-half million Palestinians survive on less than 20 percent of the West Bank’s aquifers, while Israel expropriates the rest.

"Israeli settlers consume up to 200 liters of water daily per individual while Palestinians in the West Bank survive on 30-60 liters per individual daily," Palestinian Environmental Authority (PEA) deputy-director Jamil Mtoor told IPS.

Meanwhile, a number of international projects to fund West Bank humanitarian aid relief are at risk due to economic shortfalls.

The UN’s Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) reported that although $254 million had been pledged toward the rehabilitation of Gaza, the level of funding for the West Bank continues to be extremely low, with only about 30 percent of needs covered.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has reported a severe shortage for its projects in the West Bank, while the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has reported financial problems relating to a number of emergency aid programs.

"UNRWA relies on voluntary funding for our projects, with the two biggest donors being the U.S. and the EU," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told IPS.

"The international monetary crisis has not helped the situation, but we are still hopeful that we will be able to meet the shortfall before June so that we don’t have to close any of our emergency programs," said Gunness.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.