3 April 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE ON GAZA BY OPERATIONS DIRECTOR OF UNITED NATIONS RELIEF


AND WORKS AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES IN THE NEAR EAST (UNRWA)


Calling the level of access for humanitarian assistance to Gaza “wholly and totally inadequate”, the Director of Operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said the situation was having a devastating impact on the physical circumstances and the mindsets of the people living there.


“We need access; it’s the number one issue, it’s the number two issue, it’s the number three issue,” said John Ging at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.  “Until and unless we can get humanitarian assistance in, in an unfettered way, we can’t even begin recovery and reconstruction.”


He said that, while UNRWA staff was working to mitigate the worst impacts of the restrictions, the Agency would continue to focus on access issues because it could not restore people to a dignified existence unless those were resolved.  While there were real security challenges to operating the crossing points, it was also true that they had to be overcome due to the legal requirement to do so.


Illustrating the scale of the inadequacy of access, he pointed out that Gaza had already been in an impoverished state in June 2007 when more than 500 trucks were allowed in.  Now, in the face of greater devastation and destruction, fewer than 100 were given the go-ahead.  Indeed, months after the January hostilities, the people of Gaza faced the same inadequate access that had prevailed then.


He emphasized, however, that it was not enough to be content with ensuring the survival of Gaza’s people.  Beyond keeping them alive, it was important to give them a life and a reason to live.  For that reason, it was critical to focus on how the latest round of damage had affected mindsets.  That led, in turn, to the issue of protection.


“Protection is not an abstract issue and the rule of law is not an abstract ideal for people caught up in this conflict on either side,” he said, noting that victims existed in two populations and suffered very serious and significant consequences on a daily basis because of the widespread political failures to resolve the conflict.  “It’s a matter of life and death and if it’s not upheld, then innocent people, including children, die.  That’s what we need to realize and mobilize around.”


He stressed that neither side should be allowed to claim that the illegal acts of the other legalized an illegal act in response.  That was true for collective sanctions imposed in response to the illegal firing of rockets, or for rockets fired in response to illegal sanctions and military actions.


But even as he appealed for the restoration of the primacy of the rule of law, he acknowledged how politicized the conflict was and how great a challenge it was to get the truth out.  He thus encouraged as many decision-makers and people of influence as possible to visit both sides of the conflict so they could determine, inquisitively, the facts for themselves.


Towards that goal, friends of Palestine should visit Israeli civilians who were within rocket range to get a sense of the violence perpetrated against them.  And friends of Israel should experience Gazans’ reality.  If they did so, he believed the decisions and policies that resulted would be better.


He also pointed out that the people currently standing in the rubble of their former lives were not calling for retribution, but for protection and for accountability.  They were concerned, not for what had happened, but for what was coming next, and the core issue for them was accountability.  “The rhetoric of the extremists is that you can forget about the rule of law […] and that’s their argument for pursuing violence.  We cannot allow that argument to prevail.”


Asked for his reaction to the various United Nations mechanisms seeking to establish accountability, he repeatedly said his opinion did not matter.  Rather, the litmus test was the level of confidence of those on the ground that the mechanisms could and would deliver the accountability they deserved for their grievances.  For his part, he was appealing for the protection of all civilians caught up in the conflict -– both in Gaza and in Israel.


“Absent their having confidence in legal mechanisms, the rhetoric and propaganda of those who advocate for more violence as being the way to get solutions will have more currency and credibility with them,” he said, underlining the stakes of that process.


Asked about recent claims by various political parties that, following recent UNRWA staff union elections, they had influence over certain staff members, he underlined UNRWA’s proactive, zero-tolerance policy for the involvement of its staff in anything other than the mission for which they were hired.  All 10,000 staff members in Gaza were required to sign a statement of understanding to that effect each year so they could not misunderstand or forget their commitment.  Furthermore, no parties or political affiliations had been identified during the election process.


After those claims had been made, he had issued a memo reminding staff that they were not being paid a United Nations salary to be under anyone’s influence but his and his managers.  He had also shifted the burden of proof to those who had been “claimed” by the political parties, giving them a one-week deadline to restore his confidence that they were not under the political parties’ influence.  If the claim was found to be true, then the staff member would lose his or her job.  If it was not true, the decision to keep the staff member on needed to be substantiated.


Pressed to explain how that aligned with the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, he said UNRWA staff were under a very high standard of proof because the consequences to their ability to operate were extremely negative if they did not enjoy the confidence of the population and the international community.  Whether it was fair or not, it was the reality and the position he felt necessary in the politicized environment.  Moreover, his staff had signed up to it.


In response to a question about today’s opening of the Karam Abu Salem crossing and the entry of 41 UNRWA trucks, among others, into Gaza, he commended Egypt’s efforts, but appealed for wider respect of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.  The potency of that Agreement was its internal elaboration of the reasons why it had been brokered in the first place, as well as its argument for how upholding its provisions could result in significant progress.  He hoped that the Agreement was reviewed daily so the international community, as well as those in the region, could remind themselves of its importance.


Asked about claims by non-governmental organizations that the closings were a violation of humanitarian law or crimes against humanity, he said his job was to help people on the ground and to report to everyone what was actually happening, not to be a judge or jury.  He had provided information to those investigating allegations of gross violations by both sides -- the use of civilians as human shields and the absence of the duty to protect -– but he declined to offer publicly any details about any particular instances since he did not have all the facts.  He believed, however, that all the crossing points should be open.  While many were open at the moment, they should be fully open, not irregularly and only for a few select people.


In response to a question on inquiries to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs about UNRWA’s use of the Commercial Bank of Syria, which was on a United States money laundering list, he said decisions about UNRWA’s banking relations were above his pay grade.  But he stressed that UNRWA must not -– and did not -- engage in any illegal activity, and while his knowledge was limited, he knew enough to say that it had been established definitively with the United States State and Treasury Departments that there was nothing illegal about UNRWA’s relations with that bank.


Asked about the Agency’s cash levels in Gaza, he said the access issue limited UNRWA’s cash.  While it had so far gotten its payrolls in, it had a pending request with the Government of Israel for other monies needed for its programmes, bills and services.


When asked how UNRWA was functioning, given prevailing access restrictions, he said that the Agency was not meeting the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.  There was a lot of misery, frustration and, increasingly, desperation.


To a question about the psychological services UNRWA provided to the people of Gaza, he said its psychosocial programmes were large and growing larger, particularly its provision of counsellors to schools and clinics.  UNRWA was also aided in its efforts by national and international organizations.


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For information media • not an official record