30 January 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE ON GAZA BY OPERATIONS DIRECTOR OF UNITED NATIONS RELIEF,


WORKS AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES IN NEAR EAST


Almost two weeks after the end of fighting, the mood in Gaza had “moved from a pervasive sense of grief to a pervasive sense of anger”, the head of United Nations relief operations there said at a Headquarters press conference today.


Speaking via video link from Gaza, John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that people there were very frustrated, with tens of thousands of Palestinians now seeing “piles of rubble” where their homes used to stand and the aid effort hampered by the lack of access.


“There are more extremists in Gaza today than there were a couple of weeks ago, as a direct result of […] this conflict, in terms of how people now see their future or lack thereof,” he said.  The current misery and despair were fertile ground for extremism.


The crossing points were still effectively closed, he said in response to questions.  Shamefully, there were thousands of tons of aid waiting on the borders of Gaza that needed to be delivered.  The donors had been very generous, the operation of getting aid from all over the world to the region had been a success, but now there was a bottleneck at the border.  Against the backdrop of huge demand, only some 100 trucks of aid were coming in daily, despite the fact that almost 90 per cent of Gaza’s refugee population now depended on food assistance.  The Government of Israel had to find solutions to get the crossing points opened.


The bottom line was that people in Gaza needed food and other supplies, and they needed them right now, he warned.


Another aspect of the issue was that only a very restricted list of items was allowed in, he added.  For example, today, he had been informed that UNRWA would not be allowed to bring in the plastic bags that it used to distribute supplies.  With some 20,000 food parcels distributed daily, those bags were a vital component of the operation.


Asked if any explanation was provided for the exclusion of the plastic bags and other items, he said that part of UNRWA’s frustration was that Israel did not give any explanations, just rejected items “for security reasons”.


UNRWA’s predominant focus at the moment was to meet the most urgent needs in terms of food and basic necessities, he continued.  A big issue was how to help those who had no homes.  UNRWA was looking for alternative accommodations for some 10,000 people who had remained in its shelters at the end of the conflict, providing rental subsidies and moving people from UNRWA schools to other shelters.  Homeless people also received immediate assistance in the form of blankets, mattresses and other basic items, including clothes.


The good news was that, with the regular deliveries of fuel to the power plant, the electricity supply had significantly improved, he said.  As for the provision of water, the area had now returned, more or less, to the pre-conflict levels, with some 100,000 people without water in their homes, down from 500,000 last week and 750,000 during the conflict.  The situation with sewage was less reassuring, because more significant repairs to the infrastructure were needed.  Without being able to import the equipment and supplies for that purpose, no real progress would be made.


On the cash situation, he said that UNRWA had received 40 million shekels to distribute to “the poorest of the poor”, who were given cash assistance amounting to 200 shekels (a little more than $50 per family).  About $25 in cash was also given to children, so they could buy supplies to return to school.


He said he had found reassuring an op-ed by the Foreign Minister of France, Bernard Kouchner, in the International Herald Tribune, in which the Minister had emphasized the need for the restoration of non-politicized implementation of humanitarian law.  Another positive development had been his own meeting with the United States Special Envoy, Senator George Mitchell, in Jerusalem today.  “We are all taking some hope and optimism from his engagement,” he said.


Responding to several questions regarding Senator Mitchell’s visit, he said that the Senator’s mandate was “to come and listen”, and that was exactly what he did.  UNRWA’s message to the Special Envoy had been that access was key to restoring the population of Gaza to a dignified existence, which was essential “before we start talking about sustainable security and a peace process”.  Briefing the Senator, Mr. Ging had emphasized the needs of the ordinary people and the importance of restoring confidence.  Among other things, he had also referred to Mr. Kouchner’s op-ed in the International Herald Tribune.


Regarding the Rafah crossing, he said that it was a passenger terminal, which was not set up for a large logistical operation.  For that reason, the Egyptian authorities were only allowing some medical supplies through it.  To a question about the possibility of delivering aid by sea, he said that the port of Gaza had been destroyed and ships could not dock and unload there.  Their only option was to go to one of the neighbouring countries.


To questions about the investigation of the bombings of UNRWA facilities, he said that the Agency was gathering evidence and testimonials of the staff.  It had also called for an independent investigation.


Asked if UNRWA had submitted a bill to the Israelis for the damage, he said that a bill would be submitted, once the damage had been assessed –- within a week or so from now.  Surveys of all the damage were now being done at numerous locations affected by fighting.


Regarding education, he emphasized that it was UNRWA’s number one priority.  “We are in a big fight on the ground against the conditions working against us in terms of bringing up a generation that will be minded towards civilized behaviour and away from violence,” he said.  The focus was on respect and discipline, and a new human rights curriculum was being introduced.  Within five days of the ceasefires, all of the Agency’s 225 schools had become fully operational.  That did not mean that they were “in perfect order”, as many had suffered serious damage.  Repairs had been made, where possible, and solutions had been sought, because up to 49 schools had been used as shelters.


He added that more than 200 counsellors had been deployed to the schools to evaluate the psychological impact of the conflict on the children and refer them for medical treatment, where needed.  In general, health was also among the priorities on the ground.  The good news in that regard was that the much needed supplies and medical staff had made their way into Gaza and that the patients who needed treatment abroad had been evacuated.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record