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UNICEF Regional Director visits Palestinian children bearing brunt of conflict

GAZA, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 9 June 2008 – UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Sigrid Kaag visited the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel recently to see firsthand the enduring impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on children.

“Under current conditions, the key challenges remain access to quality services and care, especially in education and health, and stronger protection systems at the household, community and government levels,” said Ms. Kaag. “Children make up more than half the population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and they bear the brunt of conflict, closure and increase in poverty levels.”

Ms. Kaag visited UNICEF-supported programmes in Gaza City as well as Gaza’s Jabaliya camp, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Beit Lahiya. She also met the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

“We are very hopeful because of the commitment we see in parents, the community and the leadership to build on progress in the systems and institutions that protect and nurture children’s well-being,” Ms. Kaag said during a visit to an adolescent-friendly learning centre near Bethlehem.

Need to protect and support children
In Gaza, the economy is at a standstill due to military blockade and political deadlock. There is limited fuel on the market, making transport to schools, hospitals and other vital services an ordeal. Many households are without steady supplies of food, electricity or water. Household income levels have fallen, and 80 per cent of the population depends on food aid.

“To witness the impact of the current blockade on the children of Gaza firsthand was a daunting experience,” Ms. Kaag observed. “This situation must end. All parties to the conflict must make every effort in protecting children and providing them with a safe and healthy environment.”

The Regional Director called for humanitarian services and movement of aid workers to be unhindered, but reiterated that humanitarian aid alone cannot be a substitute for a political solution.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that military incursions continue to claim a disproportionately high toll of young lives. As of 26 May, 64 children had been killed in the conflict since the beginning of the year – more than the total child death toll for all of 2007. Fifty-nine of the deaths were in Gaza and another four victims were Israeli children.

Obstacles to movement
Across the West Bank, some 600 obstacles to movement – and the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel – make it difficult for children to attend schools, patients to go to health centres and families to see each other. The closure regime is tightening even for UN humanitarian operations; between September 2007 and March 2008, there were 373 incidents of delayed or denied access for UN humanitarian personnel, a 50 per cent increase over the previous six months.

UNICEF is working with the Palestinian Authority, sister UN agencies and partners on the ground to prevent and, where possible, reverse deteriorating conditions for children. Its programmes cover health and nutrition, water and sanitation, education, child protection and adolescent development and participation.

Besides meeting with President Abbas, Ms. Kaag and other UNICEF colleagues met with Palestinian Minister of Social Affairs Mahmoud Habash, Minister of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs Dr. Ashraf al-Ajrami, Minister of Planning Dr. Samir Abdullah and Minister for Youth, Sports and Culture Tahani abu Daqqa.

Keeping up the momentum
Fruitful discussions also took place with senior officials at the line ministries working directly with UNICEF.

In addition, Ms. Kaag met with senior officials from the Israeli Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs, as well as representatives of UNICEF’s major non-governmental implementing partners, representatives of the UN Country Team and with the UNICEF National Committee for Israel.

Ms. Kaag said she was encouraged by the discussions and noted progress from counterparts in giving priority to the well-being of children and women. She insisted, however, that the momentum needed to be kept and efforts redoubled, given the situation on the ground.

 

 
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