Palestinian Red Crescent learns to adapt

Published: 2 October 2002 0:00 CET

Saleh Dabbakeh in Amman

Two years into the second Intifada, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has had to adapt to the changing reality in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. New mechanisms have had to be devised to allow it to reach those who need its help.

Immediately before the latest cycle of violence erupted in late September 2000, the PRCS conducted a Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment study - a tool used to design an effective national disaster plan and define the PRCS role within the national context. The study was published in August 2000, after nine years of relative calm.

Although many participants in the study foresaw political problems on the horizon, very few expected them to reach the present proportions.

The cycle of violence has prompted the PRCS to change strategy to deal with a totally different situation. It has been able to create adequate mechanisms to ensure service delivery to a population that is increasingly subjected to severe restrictions of movement, inability to access health services, mounting poverty and malnutrition.

According to its president, Younis Al-Khatib, the Palestinian Red Crescent built a solid team of staff and volunteers to deal with the effects of the conflict situation. To be able to help vulnerable people, staff and volunteers had to be trained in new fields such as relief assistance, logistics, water and sanitation programmes, logistics and rapid damage assessment and response.

PRCS began decentralizing its operations as West Bank towns and villages were increasingly sealed off and movement from one district to another severely disrupted by hundreds of checkpoints.

The National Society pre-positioned relief items and supplies in cities and villages making it readily available to the growing number of needy people in the area. According to a Palestinian Bureau of Statistics survey conducted last February, around 82 per cent of households in the West Bank and Gaza said they needed humanitarian assistance to cope. The same report indicated that about 70 per cent of the population are currently living under the poverty line.

The situation deteriorated further after the reoccupation of seven Palestinian cities and the imposition of a total curfew on more than a million Palestinians.

"Poverty has emerged so rapidly and increased so tremendously that we had to start providing relief assistance to vulnerable groups, namely children, pregnant women, the chronically ill and the elderly," says Hossam Sharkawi, emergency response co-coordinator at the PRCS.
"This was only possible through decentralization," he adds.

In conflict situations health and education are the first to suffer, and, Al-Khatib explains, Palestine is no exception.

"The effects of the confrontation on the health system culminated as the Palestinian Authority came under attack. We had to expand our services to replace some of the services that used to be carried by the Ministry of Health," he says.

Within two years the PRCS expanded its medical and emergency services through 134 communities out of a total of 600 in the West Bank area. It integrated its ambulance and primary health care services, creating fixed and mobile medical teams to reach the most vulnerable in many of the villages sealed off by the Israeli Army.

"Earlier in the year there were about 200 checkpoints across the West Bank," pointed out Sharkawi, "now army troops are everywhere and curfews have exacerbated the situation."

The result has been a huge increase in non-conflict cases handled by PRCS crews. "Eighty per cent of our work is still non-conflict related emergencies. People run out of medicine, baby-milk and water and they need medical attention when they are ill," explained Sharkawi. "Because of curfews, they call PRCS for help."

To cope with such demand the PRCS established hot-lines around major cities. Consultations are provided by over 50 volunteer doctors who give medical advice over the telephone.

"We have been able to save many, many lives but some of our programmes suffered heavily," says Al-Khatib. "Immunization is down by at least 30-40 per cent. Two years ago immunization rates stood at 97 per cent."

The inability to reach victims has also taken a physical and mental toll on volunteers and staff, physically and mentally. "Preventing them from reaching their destination to save lives is the cruellest form of punishment anyone can exact on life-savers," Sharkawi says. "They just want to be left alone to do what they do best - saving lives."

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