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Humanitarian workers face constant danger in West Bank

Israeli paramedics remove a body from the bombed hotel Keystone

Swiss aid workers and international observers are facing increasingly dangerous conditions in the Occupied Territories.

This content was published on March 28, 2002 - 12:54

In the last few days, violence in the region has left dozens of people dead, including a Swiss woman, and spokesmen for humanitarian organisations say it is difficult to predict and avoid the dangers.

On Tuesday evening Catherine Berruex, 25, a Swiss who worked as a monitor for the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), was shot dead along with a fellow observer in the West Bank, outside the town of Hebron. She was from canton Vaud.

On Wednesday evening a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into the dining room of a busy hotel in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya. He blew himself up and killed 21 people, all of whom were celebrating the start of the Jewish Passover festival. Hundreds more were injured.

Unfortunately such events are commonplace in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The area is gripped by what seems to be a never-ending cycle of attack and counter attack between the Palestinians and Israelis.

In this environment, international aid workers and observers go about their daily business, often taking their lives into their own hands as they do so.

ICRC and TIPH

Swiss aid groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has its headquarters in Geneva and the Norwegian TIPH are among the humanitarian groups working in the area.

They do not carry arms, and have only helmets, bulletproof vests and their agencies' logos on their vehicles and clothing to protect them. None of this equipment prevents them for being caught in the crossfire.

With every wounded or killed humanitarian worker a lesson can be learnt, says Vincent Lusser from the ICRC.

Lusser says that investigations and assessments are carried out, but that it is impossible to gauge and what will happen from day to day in the Occupied Territories.

Improving safety

To improve their safety, aid workers are advised to avoid, when possible, dangerous areas and flashpoints such as border crossings. If they need to visit the areas they have to inform the agency of where they are going.

In these cases they have to keep radio contact with the agency's base and the group's emblem or initials have to be clearly marked on the vehicle. For example, there is no question of aid vehicles waiting in a long traffic queue at an army checkpoint, as these areas are deemed to be more dangerous than others.

However, from time to time cars and vans, which do not belong to the aid agencies, use their emblems. Nurses, doctors and emergency workers sometimes display the logos so they can carry out their work more freely.

But this privilege can be abused. For example on Wednesday an ambulance displaying the Red Cross' symbol was intercepted in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It was carrying weapons and firearms.

Psychological support

Apart from the physical danger, the aid workers also need psychological support.

Lusser says that workers have to deal with stress and fear every time they witness, hear or are caught in a missile attack or gun battle. He adds that their daily life is punctuated with the risk of injury and death.

He believes that tight communication networks and support from coworkers and the agencies back home can help reduce stress levels. But there is no getting away from the situation on the ground, which is becoming more and more desperate despite efforts to broker a ceasefire.

by Sally Mules and Bernard Weissbrodt

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