Humanitarian Effort Focuses On Victims of Conflict in Middle East

U.S.-based humanitarian groups mobilized Tuesday to aid Lebanese and Israeli citizens, and locate Americans caught up in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

“In a situation like this, our No. 1 concern is getting people on the ground, getting immediate assistance to those people who need immediate assistance and assessing what the conflict is and what it requires,” said Zach Abraham, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, which is monitoring the situation through its Geneva-based international arm, the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The American Red Cross has fielded numerous calls from relatives of U.S. citizens in the region, referring those inquiries to the State Department, which has set up a dedicated number — 888-407-4747 — for information about travel and security in Lebanon.

With an estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, the State Department is urging those wishing to leave Lebanon to visit the U.S. Embassy in Beirut's Web site or register online at the State Department Web site.

That’s of little comfort to Elie Najm, the chairman of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations, a group of 15 local Lebanese-American associations across the country. Najm's parents, Yvonne and Michel, traveled from their home in Raleigh, N.C., to Beirut for a vacation on June 25. Though Michel Najm is a U.S. citizen, his wife is a permanent resident and unable to qualify for the evacuation, Elie Najm said.

“My dad is not going to leave my mom by herself,” Najm said. “A lot of people are this way.”

His group, which once lobbied for the end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, has started local efforts to raise money for the Red Cross.

“We’re all trying to find out how our relatives are doing there through phone calls and so on,” he said.

American Near East Refugee Aid, based in Washington, D.C., already is providing medical assistance at local Lebanese clinics, thanks to a shipment of medicine that arrived in Beirut just before the fighting began.

“That’s the major response that we will be doing: Healthcare for the displaced people from this conflict,” said Peter Gubser, the group’s president.

Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps redeployed its 25-person staff in Lebanon for emergency relief.

“There are thousands of displaced people from the south heading up toward Beirut and toward areas around there,” said Mercy Corps spokesman Jeremy Barnicle. “We’re starting emergency distributions of stuff like hygiene kits, kitchen cooking kits, what we call sleeping kits — basically air mattresses and blankets. All the kinds of things that people who are newly displaced from their homes would need.”

Mercy Corps efforts are coordinated through the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, which requested the assistance.

“We’re not doing emergency relief on the Israeli side now mostly because when we’re deciding where to respond anywhere in the world, the first question is, 'can the local authorities handle this on their own and have they requested support,'” Barnicle said. “In terms of the Israelis, they have one of the most sophisticated emergency response bureaucracies in the world. They seem to be on top of it.”

Israeli citizens are receiving aid from groups such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has started a $10 million fundraising campaign as well as distributing 8,000 emergency kits — containing toiletries, radios and flashlights — to elderly residents in six northern cities, including Kiryat Shmona, a border-town target of Hezbollah rockets.

The committee also sent 600 packages containing board games and craft supplies to shelters housing children in those cities.

“As you can imagine, it’s pretty depressing and daunting for children to be in a shelter for days on end hearing missiles and rockets,” said JDC spokeswoman Deborah Sklar Weiss.

But relatively few aid organizations have fronted ground efforts, opting instead for a wait-and-see approach.

CARE, a humanitarian agency that provides global assistance to the poor, has operations in the West Bank and Gaza, and is considering providing aid to the Lebanese.

“It’s too dangerous to go in to make an assessment right in the middle of the bombing, but as soon as the violence abates, we are going to make an assessment to see where CARE might add value and partner with local agencies to deliver aid, if we determine that there’s something CARE can add,” said spokeswoman Lurma Rackley.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides local training in agriculture, information technology and governmental planning, has temporarily ceased its operations in Lebanon, according to its press director, David Snider.

“AID contractors and family members have been airlifted to Cyprus, and the USAID program in Lebanon is in suspension, but nothing has been canceled at this point,” he said.

Even the American Red Cross has yet to start fundraising on its Web site, referring donations to the International Committee of the Red Cross until that organization makes a final assessment of the needs of the citizenry in Israel and Lebanon.

“We always stay prepared and we’re monitoring it very closely,” Abraham said. “We have people watching the situation, day in and day out. But at the moment that’s all we’re doing, is monitoring the situation.”

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