15 January 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE on gaza humanitarian situation


Israeli artillery and tank fire intensely bombarded the United Nations compound in Gaza throughout Wednesday night and Thursday, injuring three people and destroying hundreds of tons of emergency food and medicines set for distribution today to shelters, hospitals and feeding centres, the Director of Operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said this afternoon.


Speaking during a Headquarters press conference via video link from Gaza, John Ging said the shelling began about 10 p.m. Wednesday night when a truck returning to the United Nations complex was reportedly struck by a missile.  By 10 a.m. the next morning -- shortly after 700 Gazan civilians living nearby sought refuge in the compound’s vocational training centre -- the centre was hit by either a tank round or an artillery shell.


Within an hour, UNRWA’s main warehouse and a workshop housing five trucks filled with fuel to supply various centres and water and sewage pumping stations caught fire after being hit by what appeared, according to United Nations staff witnessing the attack, to be phosphorous shells.  “It looked like phosphorous, it smelled like phosphorous and it burned like phosphorous.  That’s why I’m calling it phosphorous,” Mr. Ging said.


The warehouse -- the compound’s nerve centre -- was destroyed and the truck driver and three people in the vocational centre suffered shrapnel injuries.  The fire was contained after six hours, although Mr. Ging reported that it was still burning and that the area surrounding United Nations buildings remained under shell attack.


“We had a first-hand experience today in this UN compound of what the poor people of Gaza have been living with on a daily basis for the last 20 days and nights,” he said.  “Our appeal is not just for the safety for UN staff and compounds, and locations and conveys, but even more important, the civilian population, the innocent men, women and children who continue to die and be killed and injured in this conflict in unacceptable numbers by any measure.”


UNRWA was opening other warehouses outside its complex to sustain operations, Mr. Ging said.  It brought supplies to storage facilities today in southern Gaza, but the Israeli military had cut off truck access to warehouses in the north.


“The bottom line is the humanitarian crisis continues to necessitate our efforts here.  We have to keep going notwithstanding the dangers and the risks,” he said.  More than 43,000 Gazans had already sought shelter in 41 UNRWA facilities.


Mr. Ging said UNRWA contacted the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Liaison Office in Gaza to alert them of the danger to United Nations operations following last night’s incident and the subsequent firings on the compound and nearby.  He was also in continuous contact with senior IDF diplomatic officials in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.


John Holmes, Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, expressed shock, dismay and outrage at the shelling.  “It’s an absolute miracle that we don’t have a huge casualty list from these hits,” he said.  Two United Nations staff had been killed and at least 49 United Nations buildings had sustained some damage since Israel launched its siege on Gaza on 27 December.


However, the civilian death toll there continued to rise.  “One in every 250 people in Gaza is either now dead or significantly injured,” Mr. Holmes said.  That was comparable to 33,000 people in New York City or 1.2 million people in the United States.


A total of 1,086 Palestinians were confirmed dead, including 346 children and 79 women, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.  Approximately 4,900 people were injured, among them 1,709 children and 724 women; 840,000 children were suffering from stress and trauma.  Nine Israeli soldiers had also been killed in Gaza, while Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel had killed 4 and injured 58 Israelis, Mr. Holmes said.


UNRWA shelters were overwhelmed with the influx of Palestinian civilians seeking refuge, he said.  Half of the more than 40,000 people already in the shelters did not have mattresses or blankets.  He said the number of internally displaced persons in Gaza could possibly be in the hundreds of thousands.


Israeli ground forces appeared to be moving deeper into urban areas today, particularly in Gaza City, home to some 500,000 people, where heavy shelling had severely damaged high‑rise buildings, mosques, hospitals and the main international media compound, among other buildings and infrastructure, Mr. Holmes said.  Three hospitals in Gaza had been shelled and two others, Al-Quds Hospital and the European Hospital, were still surrounded by the Israeli Army, making entry and exit impossible.


The IDF held fire for four hours today to let aid in, Mr. Holmes said.  Yesterday, 105 truckloads of supplies entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing.  That was more than on previous days, but still far short of the 500 to 600 trucks entering Gaza daily prior to the Hamas takeover.  Karni, the main border crossing for food, and Nahal Oz, the main entry for fuel, remained closed.  Gaza’s main power station was operating on one turbine, providing patchy service at best.


Fielding a correspondent’s question as to whether Israel’s apology for the United Nations attack was sufficient, Mr. Holmes said:  “It’s not enough for us.  The Secretary‑General has already asked for a very full explanation of what has happened.”  Meanwhile, UNRWA’s aid operations must continue.


Several reporters asked about the attack’s impact on the United Nations’ confidence in its relationship with the IDF.  Mr. Ging regretted that UNRWA’s real-time liaison with the IDF, including reassurance from high‑level officials in Tel Aviv, had not prevented the shooting.  “Within one hour of the first round landing, we had six more rounds being fired into the compound.  It’s for them to answer why it didn’t work.”


Fielding a question about the Israeli Prime Minister’s suggestion that Hamas was firing from the United Nations buildings, Mr. Ging said no militants were in the compound, nor had they fired from it.


Concerning Israel’s use of internationally banned phosphorous weapons and its justification for a large-scale military attack on an enemy that had no army, air force or navy, Mr. Holmes said the weapons used were not cluster munitions, nor had they been banned under international law.  However, he condemned the use of such weapons in civilian areas.  Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas’ rocket attacks was unjustified and violated international humanitarian law.


Concerning the proximity of IDF forces and the ability of UNRWA staff to reach Gaza City, Mr. Ging said the troops were very close to the southern boundary of Gaza City and that UNRWA staff could only leave the northern end of the compound.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record