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About 50,000 Palestinian families in the West Bank are currently receiving their last vouchers and parcels from the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing only enough food until the end of the year when the emergency distribution programme will end.

The anticipated cut in services is sharpening the debate about how far the international community should help finance Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through aiding the Palestinians.

The ICRC started its voucher scheme more than a year ago following Israel's reinvasion of the west Bank, stressing then it was only a short-term, emergency measure. It now says that Israel, as the occupying power, should ensure the whole population has access to food and water, medical assistance, employment and education.

"The long-term solution is not to support the occupied population with humanitarian assistance but rather to ensure that basic rights under international humanitarian law are respected," the ICRC says.

"Beyond any emergency situation, any basic assistance is not an appropriate response measure."

For the moment, though, the US-backed "road map" is stalled and the Palestinian Authority, embroiled in internal wrangling, has seen most of its powers eroded during the three-year intifada or uprising.

Amid this gloomy scenario, the international community provides more than $1bn a year in assistance to the PA and other welfare programmes. Some Palestinians and aid workers are saying that if aid is withdrawn, Israel will have to reappraise its policy towards the territories.

Israel's Major General Yosef Mishlav, co-ordinator of government activities in the territories, last month expressed concern at the ending of the ICRC programme, according to the Ma'ariv newspaper. He said other organisations would have to pay for humanitarian aid while ways were found to relieve Israeli pressure on the Palestinians.

Moshe Yaalon, the top Israeli army chief, went even further last week when he said Israeli policies such as blockades and curfew - which the Palestinians call collective punishment - were against Israeli's "strategic interest" and were radicalising the local population.

More than 600 checkpoints and roadblocks throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip restrict movement between villages and towns and in and out of Israel. About 60 per cent of the 3.3m Palestinian population lives beneath the poverty line, unemployment is close to 50 per cent and health and education has been severely disrupted.

"I'm very afraid of the future, I don't know what to do," said Sara Il-Abash, who received the last of her ICRC vouchers in Hebron this week.

"My husband is ill and cannot work and I have four children. All the food is always eaten so we cannot save any for later on."

Israeli military measures have also hampered the access of humanitarian workers and the physical movement of aid, with many United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations reporting tough restrictions.

"There is a humanitarian imperative for the UN to provide assistance; however, this is occupied territory where Israel has the primary responsibility and we need to focus on that," said David Shearer, head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem.

Source: The Financial Times

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