19 January 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE ON GAZA HUMANITARIAN SITUATION


“It may not be very clear who actually won this conflict -– if such a concept means anything in Gaza -- but I think it is pretty clear who lost, and that was the civilian population of Gaza and, to a much lesser extent, the civilian population of southern Israel,” John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said at a Headquarters press briefing today.


Now that the hostilities had ended –- and he hoped that was permanent -– Mr. Holmes described humanitarian concerns on the ground after 22 days of violence, which included numerous deaths and injuries, the destruction of infrastructure and near-total destruction of some neighbourhoods.  With immediate focus placed on the assessment of needs and damage, he hoped to visit Gaza in the next few days.  The Secretary-General had said that, within 10 days of the ceasefire, a humanitarian flash appeal would be launched to cover immediate humanitarian and short-term recovery needs.


He hoped to have a full report on the recovery and reconstruction needs in three weeks, he continued.  The staff in the Gaza Strip and in the region -– and UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] had 17,000 national Palestinian staff altogether -– would be the backbone of those efforts, which would also be supplemented from Headquarters.  “But, naturally, if we are going to do this successfully, we need not just a kind of temporary and fragile ceasefire that we have now, but a durable ceasefire, and we need, as part of that, an open functioning system for the crossings to enable full access for the humanitarian, but also commercial, goods and personnel,” he said, stressing the need to “get back to the kind of access we had before”, in accordance with the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.


Presenting the latest casualty figures, he said that, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 1,314 people had been killed, including 416 children and 106 women; and 5,320 people had been injured, including 1,855 children and 795 women.  That brought the total number of dead and injured to over 6,600.  On the Israeli side, 4 civilians had been killed and 84 injured since 27 December.  Also, nine soldiers had been killed.


A total of 50 United Nations facilities had been damaged in the fighting, he added.  On the medical side, primary health-care care was resuming, but there was still an enormous strain on hospitals and intensive care units, not least because 21 medical facilities had been damaged.  The Al Quds hospital, damaged by shelling, was still closed, and other facilities were only partially opened.  During the conflict, 13 health personnel had been killed and 22 injured, while on duty.


The good news was that peace and quiet at the moment had allowed repairs to start on electricity and water networks, and the power plant was now operating, at least partially, he said.  As of yesterday, an additional 100,000 people had running water, although 400,000 still did not have it.  Sewage problems persisted, raising health risks for the population.  Huge shortages of food also remained, accompanied with rising prices and shortages of cash.


The opening of crossings had led to an increase in the flow of aid, he continued.  Yesterday, some 98 truckloads of goods had been able to cross into Gaza, as well as 60,000 litres of diesel and 90,000 litres of fuel.  However, those quantities were relatively small.  “We are still a long way from what Gaza actually needs,” he said.


Joining Mr. Holmes via video link from Gaza was John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for UNRWA, who said that the aid operation was now “in full swing”.  The distribution centres in many areas had now resumed operations, as did the health centres throughout the Strip.  It was good news that people now had access to the basic assistance they needed, including food.  Efforts were now under way to repair the water supply, as well.


“So many families have been destroyed in so many ways,” he said, describing the sense of grief among the Palestinian population, with “terrible scenes of removing people from the rubble”.  Some 42 children had been killed since his last briefing on Friday alone, including two brothers of five and seven, who died at an UNRWA school on Saturday.  Some of the 50,000 people in UNRWA shelters had returned home, only to find that their houses had been completely destroyed or badly damaged.  This evening, over 35,000 people “with nowhere to go” were expected to remain in shelters.


Now, people were trying to come to terms with what had happened, he said.  There was a sense of relief that the fighting had stopped, but the challenges were daunting, and not only as far as recovery and reconstruction were concerned.  The people of Gaza needed to be confident that “accountability would be achieved for their loss through a legal process”.  Of course, there were political complexities and operational challenges, “but the bottom line is to restore them to a dignified existence and to give them a perspective, which is positive, to mitigate against the agenda of extremism here”.  Also, the economy of Gaza needed to be reactivated, and for that, the crossings needed to be opened.


UNRWA staff on the ground were aware of the urgency of communicating the needs and the scale of destruction to the donor community, he said.  A tight timeline had been set for the evaluation process, and the people were working hard to meet it.


Responding to several questions about the assessment, Mr. Holmes said that the process had already started.  He hoped “to be out there later this week”, and a humanitarian coordinator on the ground had an important role to play.


Asked to comment on a reported statement by the European Union External Relations Commissioner that European countries would not undertake massive reconstruction projects until Gaza had a Government that the European Union could deal with, he said that the Secretary-General had made it very clear that “what we would hope is that there will be a process of reunification of Palestinian leadership and Palestinian direction, both in Gaza and in the West Bank”.  That would facilitate the peace process and reconstruction.


He said that, for the time being, “we are obviously conducting discussions with the Palestinian Authority, but we also, in our operations in Gaza, need to talk to the people on the spot.”  Humanitarian agencies needed to deal with people on the ground, and they would continue to do that, irrespective of any politics involved.


“Certainly, we would not accept any kind of an Israeli veto over any project we want to conduct inside Gaza –- we won’t accept it anywhere else, either,” he said, in response to several other questions.  Insofar as goods getting into Gaza were concerned, he wanted to see crossing points fully opened for goods and people, not least humanitarian workers.  The reality of the moment, however, was that the crossings were controlled by the Israelis.  His contacts with the Israeli side since the ceasefire had confirmed that Israel wanted to facilitate humanitarian work and access as much as possible.  “I take them at their word, and we’ll try to make that happen as much as possible,” he said.


Regarding the reconstruction cost, he said that it would be high.  For full reconstruction, it would be necessary to move from addressing immediate needs to development and re-starting the economy.  He was unable to give a full figure for the humanitarian needs at this point, but it would be hundreds of millions of dollars just for that part of it.  No doubt, the overall reconstruction costs would be numbered in the billions of dollars.


Responding to a question about white phosphorous shells hitting UNRWA locations, he said that the Agency had evidence to substantiate that claim.  Of course, UNRWA continued to seek an independent investigation to definitively determine the fact.


Asked to comment on allegations that “a small membership” of the Agency had allegiance to Hamas, Mr. Ging said that UNRWA was fully transparent and accountable.  “What we have regretted in the past is that we have not been given a hearing to answer,” he said.  “Allegations are thrown out, unsubstantiated, unfounded, and then they continue to be repeated.  So anybody who has any evidence or information to substantiate allegations, we welcome that.”


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For information media • not an official record