Israel army warned by UN for shooting at aid workers

The United Nations and other international relief agencies have warned that they may have to cease operating in the occupied territories unless Israel eases the closures that severely restrict their movement through the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The aid agencies have complained bitterly to Israel about soldiers firing on their relief workers, even when traffic has been co-ordinated in advance. "Several organisations are now seriously considering whether they should continue to work at all under these circumstances," they said.

They complain that despite numerous meetings with the military authorities, the relief agencies are subjected to unpredictable and sudden changes on the ground, whose purpose is often obscure and rarely explained.

Despite the growing anger among aid organisations, diplomatic sources said there was "no prospect" of the UN itself ending its programme of feeding poor Palestinian families in the occupied territories, something it has been doing for five decades.

Earlier this year, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Swiss-based charity, decided it could no longer maintain food-distribution efforts in the West Bank. "This program was not designed to substitute for the responsibility of the occupying power, which is Israel," said Vincent Bernard, a Red Cross spokesman in Jerusalem. Aid organisations , including the UN, are increasingly looking at the costs of subsidising the occupation, expected to be £700m next year.

Under increasing domestic and international criticism for doing nothing to end the cycle of violence, Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, yesterday urged Ahmad Qureia, his Palestinian counterpart, to meet him and resume negotiations.

Mr Sharon told an annual gathering of Israeli editors that he wanted a summit "because I am interested in promoting peace", but said there was a limit to Israel's patience.

The two Prime Ministers' bureau chiefs, Dov Weisglass and Hassan Abu Libda, are expected to meet early next week to prepare the ground. Mr Qureia is seeking a ceasefire between Israel and all the Palestinian militias, though Mr Sharon is refusing to accept that as a condition for talks.

Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief, demanded in an interview with Israeli radio yesterday that Israel stop building its controversial security fence before a summit, but Mr Sharon insisted that work would continue.

Mr Rajoub was speaking from England, where he is attending a two-day private gathering outside London of senior Israeli and Palestinian political and security officials, who are attempting to find a way out of the impasse. The Israeli delegation includes Omri Sharon, the Prime Minister's son, a Likud MP who has served in the past as a back channel for talking to Yasser Arafat.

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