A consensus has emerged in the Middle East, among people of otherwise widely divergent views, on one point: something must be done for ordinary families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They face a crisis of such dimensions that it threatens everyone in the region.

Two weeks ago, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, telephoned Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, to ask for an international effort to help the Palestinian people. Last Wednesday Daniel Kurtzer, the American ambassador to Israel, calling the situation in the territories “a humanitarian disaster,” urged Israel to lift travel restrictions on Palestinians. And on Friday The New York Times reported on an ongoing study by the United States Agency for International Development that has found dramatically increased malnutrition and anemia among Palestinian children. By Sunday, Prime Minister Sharon had announced an easing of travel and other restrictions and had named Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to coordinate relief for the Palestinians. The United Nations hopes these decisions will be swiftly implemented in such a way that they make a substantive difference to ordinary Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon’s phone call came on a day when Mr. Annan was meeting in New York with his colleagues in the Quartet – Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russia’s foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, and Javier Solana, the European Union’s high representative. They agreed that full humanitarian access would be the fastest way to begin improving the Palestinians’ plight and that the United Nations should lead the humanitarian effort.

The United Nations already has the largest humanitarian operation on the ground in the Middle East, with 10,500 staff members in the West Bank and Gaza alone: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Since 1950, the agency has catered to the basic health, education and welfare needs of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and their descendants – some of whom still live in so-called refugee camps, which are townships of two- and three-story buildings, while many others are scattered across the region.

Since September 2000, the agency has also been trying to lessen the humanitarian impact of violence, curfews and closures on the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. It has greatly increased its provision of food aid: whereas before the strife such aid went to 11,000 refugee families, it is now reaching almost 220,000 families. As the Palestinian economy has stagnated, the demands on agency resources have soared.

Israel has long understood that the relief agency’s work is an important factor in the stability of the large Palestinian population on its doorstep. In 1967, when it took control of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel asked the agency to continue its work there – a responsibility that, without the agency, would have fallen on Israel’s shoulders. More recently, in November 2001, the Israeli delegate to the United Nations General Assembly expressed Israel’s “appreciation for the efforts of UNRWA in providing important services, especially in the fields of health care and education.”

Despite such statements, there have been attacks on the agency by some commentators in Israel and America alleging, wrongly, that the relief agency is not part of the solution to the violence in the region, but is part of the problem.

The agency faces many difficulties in serving such a highly politicized population, even though it does not police or administer the refugee camps (where a third of refugees live). The agency is committed to ensuring that its installations remain free of militant activity and demands that its 22,000 staff members – 99 per cent of whom are Palestinian refugees – do not allow their political beliefs to interfere with their duties. These efforts have brought attacks from Arab commentators (and some in the agency’s staff union) claiming that the agency suppresses freedom of speech.

However, in an environment as polarized as the Middle East, the agency would soon lose all credibility if it allowed its commitment to the norms of justice to be diluted by a fear of criticism, regardless of where it might come from.

The agency is working with its donors to tackle some of the difficulties created by the political landscape. For several years it has produced school materials promoting tolerance, nonviolent conflict resolution and human rights. The agency plans to expand this program with further financial support from the United States, which has long been the most generous backer of Palestinian refugee relief. Such support from the international community is vital if the relief and works agency is to continue to operate apolitically in a politically polarized region – and to relieve the desperate situation of Palestinian refugees.

Peter Hansen is commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
This column appeared in the New York Times on July 30,2002, and in the International Herald Tribune on July 31, 2002