9 February 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE ON HUMANITARIAN SITUATION IN GAZA

 


Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General’s Special representative for Children and Armed Conflict, reiterated the call for Israel to open its border crossings with Gaza and to expand the list of items to be allowed in -– especially regarding school supplies -- saying that around 400 trucks per day would be needed to meet humanitarian needs arising from the recent conflict, and over 1,000 trucks would eventually be needed once reconstruction began.


According to Ms. Coomaraswamy, who briefed correspondents at a Headquarters press conference on her recent visit to the region, fewer than 200 trucks were permitted to enter Gaza on a typical day, and that some items useful to children, such as paper needed to produce school books, had not been allowed in.


“We need to rebuild schools,” she added, saying that on her tour of the Occupied Palestinian Territory she had seen several schools “flattened” -- including the American International School, known widely to be a place of secular learning.  Already, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had established a board of inquiry to investigate the circumstances around damages sustained to school operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).


Ms. Coomaraswamy’s four-day visit of the region had provided a chance to assess the situation faced by children during the conflict in Gaza and the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, where she had spoken to both Palestinian and Israeli authorities, as well as children on both sides.  She noted a great need for psychosocial support among children, especially those that had witnessed violence at close range, sometimes against their own parents and siblings.  She had also sensed a building demand for accountability on the part of aggressors.


“There is so much anger and despair, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Ashkelon, that there is absolute demand for some kind of an accounting process”, which might take the form of an independent investigation, she said.  Youth in the West Bank were so consumed by anger over the latest conflagration that her planned talk on Gandhi and non-violence had not gone over very well, suggesting the need for a legal process to channel such volatile emotions.


Commenting on her visit to Ashkelon in southern Israel, which, she observed, was “well mobilized” to deal with crises, she voiced hope that Israeli authorities would build on their capacity to tackle “rule of law issues” by conducting an investigation of their own.  She also remarked on the virtue of being cautious when under fire, saying: “There is a duty of precaution under international law to be absolutely cautious, so that even when there is fire coming, there would be a second investigation to be absolutely certain about what is going on”.


With regard to Hamas, she called on the group to halt the indiscriminate firing of rockets and to respect the integrity of international aid, referring to the two incidents last week where Hamas personnel had stolen humanitarian supplies belonging to UNRWA.  In response to the theft, the Agency had stopped distributing aid to Gazans.


Joining the press conference via videolink, John Ging, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, told correspondents the Agency was ready to resume today the distribution of aid, after Hamas had returned the food and blankets taken from the Agency’s storehouse, along with all items taken from 10 aid trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing two days later.  He added, however, that, because the border was expected to be closed on Tuesday, the day of the Israeli elections, the transfer of supplies would most likely begin again on Wednesday.


Responding to the suggestion by one correspondent that UNRWA, by its harsh treatment of Hamas, was seeking to “mute” the calls by the United States Congress for an independent audit, Mr. Ging emphasized that the Agency was already subject to the United Nations audit rules.  Still, he added, it was “hardly credible” that UNRWA would jeopardize its aid efforts to 1 million refugees for the purpose of an audit.


Meanwhile, Israel’s restrictive border policy was forcing the Agency to buy plastic bags at the local market in order to distribute its food packets because it had run out of its own, Mr. Ging said.  In terms of food aid, of the estimated 900,000 people queuing for food, only 30,000 could be served before supplies ran out.


Israel’s policy was also obstructing the teaching of human rights in UNRWA schools, he said, since related textbooks could not be printed because paper was not allowed in.  The new human rights curriculum had been developed jointly by UNRWA, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Red Cross, and was being taught, for the first time, as a subject in its own right at UNRWA schools.  “We want these kids to come up with a civilized outlook, with a mindset that is oriented towards peace and tolerance.  And we’re being obstructed,” said Mr. Ging.


Lending support to Ms. Coomaraswamy’s suggestion of an independent investigation on events of the recent conflict, Mr. Ging said UNRWA was conducting its own probe that he hoped could feed into a wider enquiry.  However, more than 50 installations had been damaged during the conflict, and UNRWA’s small legal office must conduct witness interviews, which he acknowledged would take time.


Throughout the briefing, both Mr. Ging and Ms. Coomaraswamy expressed concern at the emotional toll wrought by the recent conflict on Palestinian and Israeli children alike.  Mr. Ging said each UNRWA school had a counsellor on staff, and that 50 more were being hired to join the 200 already working for the Agency to handle children’s psychological problems.  The Agency was also planning to ramp up its recreation programme, which so far had not been given the resources he believed it deserved.  “We’re reprioritizing all of our efforts and energy into children,” he said.


Sharing her impressions of life in the region from an emotional perspective, Ms. Coomaraswamy noted that the areas were Palestinians lived, particularly the Gaza Strip, was densely packed.  The area’s crowded environment could also contribute to a sense of being trapped, which was made worse because it was difficult to get out.  At the same time, in Ashkelon, frequent in-school security drills were making Israeli children petrified to go to school.


She intended to submit a detailed report of her visit, and would brief the Security Council on the findings.  On the list of the Security Council’s “six grave violations against children in conflict” was the denial of humanitarian access, she stressed, saying that the current blockade on Gaza fell into that category of violations.  Responding to a query on whether children were taking up arms, she acknowledged some anecdotal reports on the subject, but said the United Nations had found no evidence that that was happening.


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For information media • not an official record