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West Bank fighting disrupts Swiss aid

Israeli forces reoccupied several Palestinian towns on Tuesday

(Keystone)

The Swiss government's humanitarian and development projects in the Occupied Territories have been caught in the crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians.

Many aid workers in the West Bank are holed up unable to leave their homes to continue with projects assisting Palestinians under siege by Israeli troops and tanks, according to Rosmarie Schelling, head of the Swiss Development Agency's offices in Gaza and the West Bank.

From the agency's headquarters in East Jerusalem, Schelling told swissinfo that Israeli curfews and check points had severely restricted the movement of aid workers.

"People cannot reach their offices, they have difficulty in holding meetings and in moving from one part of the Palestinian territories to another," Schelling told swissinfo.

"Students cannot go to university because they cannot get through the road blocks - the fighting is affecting the daily life of people, which also affects our activities and projects," Schelling continued.

Financial support

The Swiss Development Agency financially supports the work of organisations like the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

The agency also supports a number of non-governmental organisations that monitor the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories as well as the treatment of victims of torture and violence. Education, training and environmental issues also form part of their brief.

The agency's budget last year totalled SFr15 million, and Schelling says it is set to expand given the new needs arising from the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Israeli offensive

Israel's latest military offensive began on Friday when it sent tanks to beseige the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah after a Palestinian suicide bombing killed 22 people last Wednesday.

Tanks have fanned out into several Palestinian towns.

The ICRC said it was struggling to do its work and has had to scale back some of its projects.

"At the moment we are hampered from doing our work," said spokesman, Gordon Bates. "The level of communication between us and the Israeli Defence Force notably, is suffering from some confusion or obstruction, and we should be doing more than we are."

The deaths last week of a Swiss and a Turkish observer of the conflict have prompted the Temporary International Presence in Hebron to end its patrols. They were the first humanitarian workers to die since the uprising began.

Swiss observer with the multinational organisation, Philipp Stucki, told swissinfo that security fears also prevented them from leaving their homes and offices unless absolutely necessary.

Safety and security

As Israeli tanks continue to invade West Bank towns to hunt down suspected Palestinian militants, Schelling is concerned for the safety of her colleagues.

"A woman who works in our office but lives in the West Bank says there're tanks are all around the town where she lives and she has not been able to leave her house since last Thursday."

Schelling says that there are security procedures to follow, nevertheless "people here are used to living in difficult situations, it is a sort of experience you acquire."

The Swiss Development Agency has managed to minimise the impact of the fighting on its activities because of the long-term nature of its projects. The situation, though, has necessitated building extra competencies in emergency aid, again by supporting agencies like UNRWA and the ICRC.

As the conflict drags into its 19th month, Schelling believes that there is going to be an even greater need to help people rebuild their lives.

by Samantha Tonkin


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