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Karen Koning Abu Zayd arrived here six years ago, just before the outbreak of the intifada. She served five years as the deputy commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and has headed the relief organization over the past year. During the course of this year, the Foreign Ministry and office of the coordinator of activities in the territories have stopped frowning when hearing the name UNRWA mentioned. After many years when UNRWA representatives were practically considered Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agents, according to Abu Zayd, an American married to a Sudanese man who always speaks calmly, the agency is now being treatine in a business-like to fair way.

The senior UN official also has no complaints against the high-level Israeli bureaucracy, with whom she communicates daily. However, she does have a hard time with the fact that the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff orders the destruction of bridges and public buildings in Gaza, while the coordinator of activities in the territories, also in uniform, spares no effort to help those rebuilding the ruins. She says there is something ironic in the fact that two arms of the Defense Ministry are doing opposing things.

Thanks to Abu Zayd's reputation, it is hard to find anyone in Israeli officialdom suggesting that her criticisms be considered an anti-Israeli attitude. On the contrary. If Karen says the situation is difficult, according to those who know her, then it is time to start worrying.

And indeed, Abu Zayd says she does not recall a situation in the territories as bad as the one faced by the Gaza Strip since the disengagement, and especially in the last few weeks. Even in the most difficult days during the second intifada, she says, the elevators in apartment buildings worked, and water flowed in the taps. Currently, darkness also has fallen on refugees' homes in the camps, and food is gradually running out.

Some 900,000 refugees are registered at UNRWA's offices in the Gaza Strip. Over the last few months, another 20,000 names have been added to the list of those requesting aid. Many of them, and the flow is steadily increasing, are Palestinian Authority employees whose livelihood has been cut off by the boycott of the Hamas government and the cessation in salary payment.

Does the Palestinian public blame the Hamas for its situation? Is there a chance it will lead to its downfall?

"I don't think so," Abu Zayd says. "After the disengagement, there was hope that the situation would improve. I found then signs of exhaustion from the violent conflict. The extent of the disappointment they experienced is equal to the extent of the hope. They don't understand why they are being punished for holding democratic elections as they were asked to do. Whoever thinks that increasing pressure on the civilian population will distance it from Hamas is mistaken. On the contrary, it strengthens its identification with it. They don't blame their government, but the government of Israel, the United States, and the international community for imposing a siege on them."

The UN relief agency's local staffers are among the few salaried employees in Gaza whose wages are deposited in the bank on time. They tell Abu Zayd that in the last few months, each one of them has been supporting 13 to 15 families.

She is amazed by the Palestinian community's solidarity. "These people learned to survive in the worst conditions," she says. "No one will bring them down to their knees." And nevertheless, Abu Zayd adds, talented businessmen and young people are finding their niche abroad. At this rate, she adds, we will lose the middle class, which serves as a vital pillar in a modern society.

Teachers and engineers have been working for four months or more without pay, she says. They stopped coming to work only when they no longer had a few shekels to pay for a can of gas for their cars or for the bus fare. Private hospitals have enough fuel for 10 days. The large public hospitals are unable to keep medications chilled. The international organizations have declared an emergency. Representatives of the World Health Organization, UN Food Agency, UNRWA and other aid organizations meet every day in Jerusalem, exchange facts and assessments, and try to help each other.

UNRWA is investing substantial resources in educating toward peace, including preparing curricula free of incitement.

What do Gaza's children learn these days about Israel?

"The children see like everyone else what is going on around them," Abu Zayd says. "I'm afraid that they will be the ones who lead the third intifada, just as the children of the first intifada led the second intifada. Our teachers and consultants have invested a huge effort in instilling the values of peace. I believe that the sophisticated tools we have given the children will last, and they will overcome this crisis."

Beilin wants an Arab in the JNF. It's not happening

Since the early days of Zionism, Jews have become used to the fact that national institutions such as the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund, are off limits for Israeli Arabs. Left and right have joined together to prevent Israel's Arab citizens from gaining entry to these Jewish clubs. After all, the purpose of their existence is to "Judaize" the country and "redeem" its lands. The High Court of Justice did rule that a democratic country may not allocate its resources based on the origin of its citizens or their religious faith (Katzir High Court of Justice ruling), but the World Zionist Organization's activists and its various branches, who do not refrain from donating their money for grabbing land in the West Bank, found ways to assure that state lands in the Galilee do not fall into the hands of the gentiles.

Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin decided that the time has come to open the JNF to Israel's Arab citizens. As far as he's concerned, this institution could have been closed down long ago, but as long as it still exists, it is unacceptable to him that its board of directors be closed to Arabs.

Beilin announced that Raadi Safuri, a Christian from Kafr Kana, is his candidate to be Meretz's representative on the JNF board of directors. Safuri has a construction engineering degree from the Technion, and was responsible for engineering infrastructure at the Kafr Kana local authority. Today he is a project supervisor for construction companies and owner of a private civil engineering office. The Labor Party also thought it would not be so terrible if one Arab were to sit on the JNF board of directors.