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May 19, 2003

U.N. Official Criticizes Israeli Travel Restrictions in Gaza


NITED NATIONS, May 19 Stepped-up Israeli travel restrictions have been preventing dozens of international workers and managers for United Nations refugee programs in the Gaza Strip from getting into and out of Gaza for the last week, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process told the Security Council today.

"These policies are violations of the privileges and immunities" afforded United Nations workers, the envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, said today. "They run counter to Israel's international humanitarian law obligations as the occupying power."

Since 1949, United Nations refugee officials, later joined by representatives of other United Nations agencies, have offered a variety of services in Gaza. Currently, they run schools and clinics and food distribution networks, among other things.

Unless United Nations credentials are again recognized at the Erez crossing, Mr. Roed-Larsen said, "it will become progressively impossible to carry out U.N. operations in Gaza."

The United Nations operation in Gaza employs thousands of Palestinians, whose movements have long been severely restricted, and the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on April 30 led to new restrictions at the Erez border crossing from those holding international passports.

It is highly unusual for the Israelis to refuse to honor the "laissez passer" (let pass) credentials issued to United Nations international workers. But since May 11 they have been doing so.

"All the measure undertaken over the last few weeks are measures that have been necessitated by the very tragic escalation in the terrorist attacks and suicide bombing by the Palestinians," said Dan Gillerman, Israel's permanent representative to the United Nations. "Israel is very appreciative of the U.N.'s work in Gaza. They are doing a terrific job."

He added, "What we are witnesses today is phenomenon that is short-lived and limited to last few weeks in which we are looking at a tragic surge in terror."

And he hinted that the current rules were likely to be rescinded within the next 48 hours.

In his message to the Security Council today, Mr. Roed-Larsen suggested that Gaza's poverty rate of 75 percent and the 53 percent unemployment rate in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank were caused in good part by the movement restrictions imposed by Israeli security officials.

Roughly two-thirds of Gazas population are refugees depending on the United Nations relief agency for health, education and social services, he said.