UNITED NATIONS (IPS)–The United Nations has protested the killings of five UN humanitarian workers by Israeli military forces this year.
A UN spokesman said this would be the second-largest number of UN staff members killed in a single year in the Middle East.
“This loss of civilian lives, of people working for a humanitarian UN agency is completely unacceptable,” said Peter Hansen, commissioner general of the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
Four of the workers were killed within two weeks between late November and early December. All five victims worked for UNRWA. An additional 21 local UNRWA employees are missing, possibly held in Israeli custody, according to the agency.
Mr. Hansen blamed the four killings on “the indiscriminate use of heavy firepower” in densely populated civilian areas. The attacks took place in the Israeli-occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza.
Of the four most recent killings, Israeli troops are accused of shooting Iain Hook, a British consultant on contract with UNRWA. He was hit by a single bullet in the back in an Israeli assault on a UN compound in late November.
In early December, three other UNRWA workers–Osama Hassan Tahrawi, Ahlam Riziq Kandil and Maher Saqallah–were killed during Israeli military assaults in the Gaza Strip.
The 31-year-old Mr. Tahrawi was a school attendant at a local UNRWA school while Ms. Kandil, 32, was a schoolteacher who was hit on her way home.
Mr. Saqallah, a 21-year-old school attendant, was killed by an Israeli soldier during an Israeli undercover operation. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.
The killings have also drawn strong protests from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the United Nations Staff Union.
In a recent report to the General Assembly, Mr. Annan said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued to deteriorate, eroding many of the achievements of the peace process.
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, he said, more than 1,800 Palestinians and over 600 Israelis have been killed, with some 25,000 Palestinians and 4,000 Israelis injured.
The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has said that an estimated 300 Palestinian children under 18 have been killed so far, half of them under 15 years of age. (See related story page 13.)
But Ahmed Shibi, minister of health for the Palestinian Authority, estimates that over 530 Palestinian children and 162 women have been killed since September 2000.
“They were not involved in the conflict, and they were killed while they were sleeping in their homes, or practicing their normal daily lives,” he said in a report to be submitted to the United Nations.
“The Israeli actions are also severe violations of the Geneva Conventions protecting civilians in times of war,” he added.
In his report, Mr. Annan said that “it is a matter of particular regret to me that so little remains of the mutual trust that had been so painstakingly built by the parties.”
“Illegitimate or illegal means cannot be justified by reference to legitimate objectives–whether they be an end to occupation and statehood for Palestinians, or security for Israelis,” he added.
A recent incursion by Israeli soldiers into a refugee camp resulted in the deaths of 10 people, including the two UNRWA workers.
The UN Staff Union has not only protested the escalating harassment and violence directed against both international and Palestinian humanitarian staff, but also demanded an immediate and full investigation of the incidents.
It called on the warring parties to respect and protect all United Nations and other aid workers operating in the area, in accordance with international law.
The Israeli government has said that it cannot wind down any of its security operations in the occupied territories particularly at a time of escalating violence.
It has imposed new travel restrictions on UN international staff in Gaza. All UN vehicles entering Israel from Gaza must carry two or more staff members.
Single occupancy vehicles, which have been used by suicide bombers against Israeli targets, have been banned from crossing into Israel until further notice. The only exceptions are high-ranking diplomats.
UNRWA said it has only three international staff drivers for the entire West Bank and Gaza, and will find its operations severely curtailed by this order.
Even its diplomatic pouch will be prevented from leaving Gaza without two drivers, while simple staff meetings and other basic communications between its operations in the West Bank and Gaza will be greatly impeded, it said.
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the measures were obviously security-related actions. “But, of course, they conflict so directly with the humanitarian work that the United Nations is trying to do.”
“I understand that these restrictions don’t just apply to UNRWA, but to all UN agencies working in the Gaza Strip,” he added.