20 January 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE ON GAZA HUMANITARIAN SITUATION


Calling the Secretary-General’s visit to Gaza today “a big morale booster”, the Director of Operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) expressed hope that, in the aftermath of Israel’s three-week military assault, more than 1,300 Palestinian deaths and massive destruction there, a better future for the Gazan population and an end to the vicious cycle of violence would emerge.


Speaking during a Headquarters news conference via video link from Gaza, John Ging said civil society leaders had met with Ban Ki-moon today and stressed the need to hold the perpetrators of the destruction to account, restore a dignified existence for Gazans, reopen all border crossings into Gaza and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict peacefully.  Mr. Ban had also held a town hall meeting with UNRWA staff.  He had not met with Hamas officials.


“It was a very positive visit for all concerned and it also hopefully sets a precedent that other global leaders will follow,” Mr. Ging said.  “Everybody here on the ground is struggling to cope with what they have just come through, but there has to be a perspective which is hopeful, that we are moving forward and that the price that [the ordinary people] have paid in terms of death, injury and destruction -- that out of that will be a better future.”


Mr. Ging said the Secretary-General had toured areas in northern Gaza and Gaza City hit hard by the Israeli military offensive that began 27 December, including Tel al Howa, where hospitals and entire neighbourhoods had been reduced to rubble, as well as the United Nations compound, which had been heavily shelled on 14 and 15 January.  Many of the buildings destroyed included ministries and vital infrastructure intended for the future Palestinian State.


“They were built with international money in the last 15 years and now they’re piles of rubble,” Mr Ging said.  “What a waste of money.  We, unfortunately, now have to put money back into building that should be going into further development.”


Prior to the current conflict, UNRWA had had more than $2 million in United Nations bank accounts for vital infrastructure development such as schools, clinics and housing repair, Mr. Ging said.  But, Israel’s ban on cement, pipes and other construction materials entering Gaza since Hamas’ takeover there in May 2007 had brought all projects to a halt since June 2008.  At present, just a fraction of the hundreds of trucks that had entered Gaza daily before May 2007 were being allowed in.


The main border crossings must be fully opened to permit the free flow of necessary materials, not just emergency food, medicine and basic household supplies, Mr. Ging said, stressing that “everyday, we are asking for crossings to open up”.


John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, who was set to tour Gaza next week to assess humanitarian and reconstruction needs, said 50 United Nations buildings, UNRWA’s main compound, a non-governmental organization installation and four convoys had been hit during Israel’s 22-day military operation.


On 18 and 19 January, up to 114 bodies had been uncovered from beneath the rubble, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 1,314, including 412 children and 100 women, Mr. Holmes said.  A total of 5,300 people were injured, among them 1,855 children and 795 women.  Since 27 December, 9 United Nations staff members had been killed and 11 injured.  The Israeli death toll stood at 13.


Mr. Holmes said that, during his trip, he would work with authorities to open all border crossings into Gaza, which was not part of Israel’s unilateral ceasefire, and end Israel’s ban on construction materials, as well as assess damage and reconstruction needs in health care, food, sanitation, infrastructure and the removal of unexploded ordinances.


Border crossings were slowly being opened to truck traffic, but only 20 per cent of the aid needed to cover Gaza’s humanitarian and commercial needs was being allowed in, Mr. Holmes said.  Although humanitarian non-governmental organizations had permission to enter Gaza, few were able to do so.  Yesterday, 125 trucks had entered through the Karem Shalom crossing and 71 truckloads of food had entered through Karni.  However, Mr. Ging said that, while a convey belt adjacent to Karni had been infrequently opened for grain imports, the main Karni crossing was closed.


Rafah, the sole entry point into Egypt, and Erez, the main Israeli crossing for passengers, were opened mainly for a limited number of wounded people in need of medical treatment, while 537,000 litres of heavy-duty diesel fuel and 206 tons of cooking gas had entered through Nahal Oz, the main crossing for fuel.  The Sufa crossing, with an entry capacity of approximately 100 trucks daily, had been closed since 27 December.


Primary health care and emergency health services were resuming as clinics began to reopen, Mr. Holmes said.  Water, sanitation and electricity repairs were also under way and services were slowly improving.  Mr. Ging said 40,000 school children would return to the classroom on Saturday, but 20,000 people left homeless by the fighting were still sheltering in UNRWA schools.  There were still high food prices and shortages of wheat, grain and basic foodstuffs.  The World Food Programme (WFP) and UNRWA were continuing their joint Operation Lifeline Gaza initiative to distribute high energy biscuits, canned meat and other emergency food aid.


Fielding a correspondent’s question about whether UNRWA had discussed with the Secretary-General the need for an independent investigation into the attacks, Mr. Ging said the Mr. Ban had reiterated his demand for accountability and was leading the effort for a full investigation.  Mr. Holmes said the United Nations had also asked Israel to investigate the shelling of the UNRWA compound.


In terms of potential outbreaks of disease due to the destroyed sewage and water networks, Mr. Ging said that, indeed, there was a public health concern.  During the military incursion, water services had been cut off for 500,000 people.  Water and sewage services had been inadequate even before the fighting, due to Gaza’s antiquated and overloaded infrastructure and the inability to bring in materials for repair.  He said minor to medium repairs made by UNRWA in its refugee camps and by local authorities throughout Gaza were helping to reconnect more and more people and businesses every day to water and sewage services.


Concerning the removal of unexploded ordinances, Mr. Ging said UNRWA’s first priority was to identify their location and alert the public to the dangers.  In the past, the devices had killed many people, particularly children.  Mr. Holmes and others would then conduct a full-scale assessment.


Concerning plans to coordinate relief efforts with Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, who was expected to visit Gaza next week, Mr. Holmes said he would be conducting his own assessment and talking closely with the European Union about it.  The European Union was a very important partner, as well as the largest donor of aid projects to the Palestinians, along with the United States.


Concerning the United Nations coordination with Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet’s Special Envoy, Mr. Holmes said he and the Secretary-General had spoken with Mr. Blair in the last few days to ensure that the United Nations efforts fit into Mr. Blair’s wider development portfolio for Gaza.


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For information media • not an official record