18 January 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY EMERGENCY RELIEF COORDINATOR ON ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER CLOSURES


This morning’s closure of border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip in response to intensified cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants would, if prolonged, make the territory’s already serious humanitarian situation “extremely severe and totally unacceptable”, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said at a press conference today.


Briefing correspondents at Headquarters on the emerging humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Mr. Holmes said that, along with the Secretary-General, he would urge the Government of Israel to review its decision as soon as possible and to ease the restrictions it had put in place.  Hopefully, normal crossings could resume as quickly as possible on Sunday, after the Shabbat period.  The Palestinians were urged to end all sniper and rocket attacks against Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces to exercise maximum restraint in their response.


Emphasizing the obligation of both parties to comply with international humanitarian law and to be very careful to protect civilians, he said the crossing points between Gaza and Israel were the lifeline for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and other goods to the territory.  Today’s action had cut off the population from the fuel supplies needed to provide some of the electricity used to pump water and to supply homes and hospitals.  While some reserves remained, they would run out in a few days if supplies were not resumed quickly.


There was also the general problem of access to drugs and food, he said, noting that humanitarian organizations working in Gaza described the situation there as dire in terms of poverty levels, dependence on outside aid, unemployment and other economic effects of the blockade.  The current high levels of violence in Gaza, southern Israel and the West Bank, and the escalation of that violence during the past week risked a descent into a further spiral of violence, putting an already “extremely worrying and fragile” situation into an even more dangerous context.


He reported that the number of rocket attacks from Gaza had escalated severely in the past few days.  About 150 Qassam rockets had been launched into Israel between 16 and 18 January, as compared to 150 or so for all of December.  Israeli reactions had caused the deaths of some 32 Palestinians, including civilians, and many injuries.


Responding to questions, he said he wished to see an increase in the amount of time that the crossing points stayed open, as well as the re-opening of the main crossing point at Karni.  The United Nations was talking to authorities on both sides in an attempt to persuade them that, despite the violence, the best course of action was to keep the crossing points open and increase, not reduce, the supply of goods.


Stressing that the United Nations understood Israel’s security problems and the need to respond to them, he said collective punishment of the people of Gaza was not the appropriate way to do so.  The United Nations did not agree that its “criticisms” or “condemnations” of the Israelis were “muted”, as some correspondents suggested.


Israel was linking its own actions, particularly the closure this morning, to the great increase in rocket attacks in the past few days, he said in reply to another question, adding that he was not trying to establish some kind of moral equivalency between the actions of the two sides, but simply relaying some of the facts.  While Israeli civilians had been injured in past rocket attacks, the number of Palestinian civilians killed had been very large over the past year and in previous years.  So there was a distinct imbalance there, but the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was focusing on the immediate situation and on the link that had been made between the rocket attacks and Israel’s actions.


He added that, while the Israeli reaction had been caused by the rocket attacks, it was not justified.  That kind of action against the people in Gaza could not be justified, even by the rocket attacks, and he would not engage in a “blame game” concerning the two sides, as some correspondents seemed to want.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record