Lebanon faces humanitarian crisis

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More than half a million people have been displaced in Lebanon as the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah continues into its second week. The UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland, who visited Beirut said that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in the country and outlined planned relief efforts. Efforts are underway to open a safe corridor to allow aid shipments to be sent to Lebanon. The evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon continues. Israel launched more air strikes and also a ground incursion into Lebanon, and Hezbollah launched rocket attacks on northern Israel.

UN relief coordinator visits Beirut

Buildings damaged by bombing in Beirut
Source: Haitham Moussawi/IRIN

UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland flew to Beirut for a 48 hour visit to Lebanon focused on assistance required by people displaced or trapped by the conflict.

He visited Haret Hreik, a crowded Beirut neighborhood where Hezbollah had its headquarters, hours after it was bombed by Israel. Calling the destruction there "horrific", he said, "I did not know it was block after block of houses,... It makes it a violation of humanitarian law". Mr. Egeland appealed for both sides to put a halt to attacks.

The Israeli government said the military was trying to be as precise as possible in its operations in Lebanon. "The Lebanese people are not our enemy. We cannot sit idly by while Hezbollah terrorists launch rockets at our towns and cities," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Mr. Egeland said there was a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Lebanon, and more than half a million people were directly affected. He said that wounded people were unable to get treatment, no safe drinking water was available and that tens of thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah militants, particularly in south Lebanon. He expected the number of displaced to increase "dramatically" as Israel has warned the population of south Lebanon to leave the area ahead of possible new military action there.

Outlining plans for a "major" relief operation, he called for an end to violence to facilitate the aid effort, saying, "We can't get relief into the country in any quantity or distribute it beyond a few points".

Situation in Lebanon

The Lebanese newspaper Daily Star reports that the number of displaced people in Lebanon passed 900,000 on Friday, with close to 40,000 refugees in Beirut itself. Other estimates place the number of refugees between half a million and a million.

Israel has urged the remaining people living in south Lebanon to leave, and streams of people, some carrying white flags, are making their way from the south.

About 42,000 refugees had flooded into the city of Sidon from the surrounding countryside - believing it to be safe from attacks - when it was hit by Israeli strikes today.

In several towns and cities, food, medical supplies and fuel stocks are running low, and municipal authorities have expressed their inability to assist people. They have called for urgent shipments of food products such as milk, rice, sugar and canned meat; diapers and kitchen tools; medicine such as insulin, painkillers, antibiotics and chlorine to clean water; sterilized gloves; refrigerators to store medicine; tents; electrical generators of 5, 10, 20 and 30 kVA; blankets and other necessities.

In the government hospital in the Al-Bass Palestinian refugee camp, the mass burial of 86 bodies was begun, after rising casualties overwhelmed the local morgue.

Infrastructure hit

The air strikes and bombardment of roads, bridges and trucks has made supplying aid to affected areas even more difficult. Lebanon's only international airport has been out of action since the first days of the conflict. Reports estimate that billions of dollars worth of infrastructure has been destroyed.

UN plans relief operation

The UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland spoke to reporters of the plans for getting aid to Lebanon. He said UN supplies of humanitarian aid would begin to arrive in the next few days. "But we need safe access," he said. "So far Israel is not giving us access." He estimated that US $100 million is urgently needed to help the half a million to one million people in Lebanon who were in need of international assistance.

U.N. and other relief agencies have been asking for humanitarian aid corridors to be opened up. Israel said it opened a 50-mile-long and five-mile-wide (80-kilometre by eight-kilometre) safe passage to Beirut for ships and aircraft to allow aid into Lebanon.

Egeland said the United Nations was planning to deliver aid by setting up humanitarian corridors in the next few days. Aid will be shipped by road and by sea from Cyprus to Beirut and the southern city of Tyre, and by air.

The evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon continues, with most being taken to the island of Cyprus, where temporary accommodation has to be found for the estimated 70,000 evacuees, in the middle of the holiday tourist season.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) says that it plans to evacuate civilians from the Lebanese-Israeli border in the next few days, but "the ability to move will depend on the situation on the ground".

Situation in Israel

Meanwhile, thousands of Israelis have been living in bomb shelters since the fighting in Lebanon started and between a third to a half of all residents in northern Israel have left the area to escape the bombardment, officials said.

"For a week people have been sitting in shelters and security rooms, so they prefer to leave," said Adi Eldar, mayor of Carmiel in a report on Haaretz newspaper's Web site.

Attacks continue

On Saturday, more television stations and mobile telephone masts in Lebanon were targeted in Israeli strikes, killing five people, including a television station employee.

Israel struck Beirut, Sidon, a port city in the south crammed with refugees, for the first time and factories, roads and bridges in air strikes in the eastern Baalbek region, killing one person.

In Haifa, two people were killed by rockets fired by Hezbollah forces, and fifteen people are reported injured.

Casualty figures rise

Current estimates say that more than 350 Lebanese and at least 36 Israelis have been killed in the conflict. One third of those killed in Lebanon are children, according to a UN report released July 21.