NEW YORK — 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 that threatens everyone in the region.

On July 16, 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. On July 24, Daniel Kurtzer, the American ambassador in Israel, calling the situation in the territories “a humanitarian disaster,” urged Israel to lift travel restrictions on Palestinians. And on July 26, the New York Times reported that a study by the United States Agency for International Development had found dramatically increased malnutrition and anemia among Palestinian children.

By July 28, Sharon announced an easing of travel and other restrictions and named Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to coordinate relief. The U.N. hopes these decisions will be swiftly implemented in such a way that they make a substantive difference in the living conditions of ordinary Palestinians.

Sharon’s phone call came on a day when Annan was meeting in New York with fellow colleagues of the diplomatic “quartet” (U.N., U.S., Russia and the European Union) involved in the Middle East Peace process — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and EU High Representative Javier Solana. They agreed that full humanitarian access is the fastest way to begin improving the Palestinians’ plight and that the U.N. should lead the effort.

The U.N. 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, in the form of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Since 1950, UNRWA 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 refugee camps, which are townships of two- and three-story buildings, while others are scattered across the region.

Since September 2000, the agency has been trying to lessen the humanitarian impact of violence, curfews and closures on the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. It has massively increased its provision of food aid. Before the strife, such aid went to 11,000 refugee families; now it is targeting almost 220,000 families across the West Bank and Gaza. As the Palestinian economy has stagnated, demands on agency resources have grown.

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 — a responsibility that otherwise would have fallen on Israel’s shoulders as the occupying power. More recently, in November 2001, the Israeli delegate to the U.N. General Assembly expressed Israel’s “appreciation for the efforts of UNRWA in providing important services, especially in the fields of health care and education.”

Nevertheless, the agency has been criticized by some commentators in Israel and the U.S. Some allege 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 run, police or administer the refugee camps (where one-third of the 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 percent of whom are Palestinian refugees — do not let their political beliefs interfere with their duties as international civil servants. These efforts recently have brought attacks from Arab commentators (some in the agency’s staff union) who claim that the agency suppresses freedom of speech.

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 its source.

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 U.S., which has long been the most generous funder of Palestinian refugee relief. Such support and understanding 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.

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