16 January 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE on humanitarian situation in gaza

 


The death toll in the Gaza Strip, according to figures from the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health, now stood at 1,115 people, including 370 children, the Director of Operations in Gaza of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) told correspondents today.


Giving his daily briefing via video link, John Ging said 5,015 people, including 1,745 children, had been injured since the Israeli campaign had started 21 days ago.  Overnight, there had been 65 casualties, including 24 children, and 115 people, including 38 children, had been injured.  Displaced people seeking refuge in 49 UNRWA schools and other facilities had risen overnight by some 4,000 people to a total of 49,000.


He said UNRWA’s preoccupation today had been recovery from the shelling of its compound yesterday.  Although the fire in the compound was still burning, it was under control.  Operations were up and running again, but food distribution to Palestinian refugees in Gaza had been interrupted for one day.  People in shelters had been served, he added, stressing that the Agency would be fully operational by tomorrow. 


As he had visited some of the shelters, the overwhelming impression was one of fear.  People facing the dilemma of going home or staying in the shelter often felt it was too dangerous to leave.  UNRWA, however, could not promise a safe haven, but assured them its staff was there for the long haul, “however long that might be.”  That reassurance was a source of confidence to the people taking shelter.


He said there was increasing hope that ongoing discussions, in which the Secretary-General was participating, would lead to a solution.  It was important to keep up the urgency and the momentum to that end.  If not, the children that were alive today could be dead tomorrow.  Destroyed infrastructures could be repaired, but life could not be restored.


Answering correspondents’ questions about yesterday’s shelling of the UNRWA compound, he said all the Agency’s stockpiles of food and medicines had been lost, which amounted to tons of food and about one full day of supplies, as supplies were daily transported to food distribution points.  UNRWA was feeding some 750,000 refugees in Gaza and providing medical services to 1 million more.  Operations had been moved to different warehouses, the location of which had been conveyed to Israeli authorities in a transparent manner.  Militants or Israeli military could not be seen from the compound.  There had been reports that they had been very close, but that they now had retreated.


As for injuries caused by the use of phosphorous gas, he said there were no figures available in that regard.  No United Nations staff had been injured in the attack on the compound, but the use of shells had created massive problems.  He could not go into the legality of the use of phosphorous, but he was of the opinion that international law and international humanitarian law was applicable in the whole world.


Ultimately, one could not measure armed actions of one side against the armed actions of the other side.  The armed action had to be measured against international law.  The situation was “not just a test of our humanity, but also of our ability to have international law applied during conflict”, he said.  Each side had to be held accountable for their own actions.


Asked if the compound was safe now, he said he had from the beginning stressed that nobody was safe in Gaza.  What had happened yesterday at the United Nations compound was the same plight facing everybody in Gaza on a daily basis:  “We are all in the same boat,” he said.


He could not comment on reports that the Security Management Team for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza would authorize the voluntary relocation of staff working for the United Nations to the West Bank via Israel or Egypt.  UNRWA’s policy was to keep operations going and to keep the required staff on hand to do that.  There had been no change in the number of people working, he added.


Most people in the northern areas of the Gaza Strip had been cut off from UNRWA, he answered to a question about access to people outside the shelters.  Together with the Red Cross and Red Crescent, UNRWA was trying to notify Israel of that situation, reminding it of its obligations to those people.  Even during the daily three-hour ceasefire, it was impossible for trucks and cars to reach those areas, as roads had been destroyed by shelling or ripped up by tank treads.


As for the 500 patients who had to be moved from the Al Quds Hospital after it had been shelled, he said they had been transferred to other hospitals.  UNRWA had not been able to help because it did not have any medicine.  The Red Cross had assisted in coordinating the transfers. 


Addressing a question about the situation of pregnant women in Gaza, he said there were no exact statistics on that vulnerable group, but the 20 UNRWA clinics had records of pregnant refugees.  The Agency was working proactively to ensure that, at the due date, those women would be where they had to be.


Asked about the cash situation in Gaza, Mr. Ging said UNRWA not only had problems paying its employees’ salaries, but also could not give cash supplements to those 94,000 Palestinian refugees who needed it.  He had, however, received confirmation that Israel had approved entry of cash for the UNRWA, but modalities still had to be worked out.


It was not a matter of blaming one side or the other, Mr. Ging told another correspondent.  It was not whether the population blamed Hamas or Israel for the trouble they were in.  It was about fear.  The population was shell shocked, traumatized and in real fear.  With the ongoing negotiations, however, they had a glimmer of hope.  One could not predict if the conflict was in its end game.  There was hope, in great part because of the Secretary-General’s efforts.


There was an innumerable amount of people who would have to be treated for shock, he continued, underscoring that it would be one of the biggest challenges to face.  The children had been particularly traumatized and would need psycho-social treatment once the schools were reopened for education -- not shelter.


“The dead children,” Mr. Ging said when asked for the most outrageous incident he had seen.  Also the children whose life had been ruined because of amputations and other injuries, he added.



For information media • not an official record