|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency
for Palestine Refugees in Near East Operations in Gaza
Despite positive developments in the Gaza Strip since the Israeli blockade adjustment in the wake of the 31 May attack on the relief flotilla, 80 per cent of the population was still aid dependent, the top United Nations official there said today at a Headquarters press conference.
Updating correspondents on the situation, John Ging, Gaza Director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said that consumer goods now reached shops legitimately, instead of via the illegal tunnels. The tunnel economy was down by an estimated 80 per cent, with that decrease taken up by legitimate businesses, an overall “win-win” situation. Although the shops were full of consumer goods, including everyday needs such as food, medicine and household articles, that fact did not create any economic activity, as the population could not afford them. For a revival of the business sector, which was now 90 per cent dormant, access to external markets was necessary, including through an increase in the number of trucks allowed to leave Gaza.
He said there had also been improvement in access for construction material needed by the United Nations and other international organizations, even though restrictions continued, as Israeli authorities said such material could be used for military purposes. Entry of construction material needed, therefore, to be coordinated with Israel, a bureaucratic requirement that had resulted in just 7 per cent of United Nations construction needs for the next six months being met.
He was encouraged by the developments, however, as they proved that it was possible to get supplies through the crossing point, contrary to a “hypothetical argument” that it could not be done. There was now a need to look beyond counting the number of trucks allowed into Gaza to the impact of increased access on the population. The situation of Gazans was still extremely bleak, with 80 per cent of the population being aid dependent. Ninety per cent of the water was unfit for human consumption, with some 80 million litres of untreated sewage flowing into the Mediterranean on a daily basis. The water infrastructure was in desperate disrepair, and there was an urgent need for huge water projects, for desalination plants and sewage treatment plants. Thousands of houses destroyed during the fighting were still standing in ruins.
UNRWA had asked for approval of the construction of 100 schools, he added. Forty schools were urgently needed to prevent more than 30,000 children from being turned away at the beginning of the new school year in September 2011. There was a “desperate situation of overcrowding”, he said, with children being taught in shift arrangements in shipping containers. Yet, only six schools had been approved for construction.
Ways and means must be found to move forward at a much more rapid pace, he said. A focus was now needed on the impact on aid dependence, education, health, water and sanitation, as well as on the commercial sector, in order to get people back to work and off their aid-dependency. After all, the donor community was no longer able to meet the financial cost of the level of aid-dependency.
He was encouraged by the understanding shown by visiting political leaders, including Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, who had drawn attention to the humanitarian situation there. He invited other political leaders who wanted to go beyond the “convenient rhetoric” to the Strip as well, because he believed visitors would have a “transformation of understanding” when the scale of the challenge and the opportunities were seen directly.
Answering correspondents’ questions, Mr. Ging said the situation of the Gazan population was still desperate, but that after years, a corner had been turned. “We are still at the bottom of the ladder,” he said, but now there was a feeling that the ladder could be climbed.
Although the tunnel economy was down an estimate 80 per cent, the remaining 20 per cent consisted of “prohibited goods”, including cement, he continued. It was frustrating that UNWRA had to go through a bureaucratic process to obtain cement, while it was available on the black market, something the organization could not and would not access. The argument that construction material could be used for military purposes was thereby undermined, as those so-called “dual use” goods were available through the illegal tunnel economy. Construction of tens of thousands of houses was needed, but only 151 had been approved over the last six months, and some 460 approved for the coming months. Some $4.5 billion had been made available by the donor community for construction purposes, but that money could not be accessed because of the restrictions. There was, therefore, an urgent need for more crossing points.
The key was to re-activate the economy, he answered to another question. A number of years ago, 70 per cent of the population were self sufficient. Now, 80 per cent were aid dependent. Migrant workers could no longer go to Israel for employment, and export was not possible. Access must, therefore, be expanded beyond consumer goods to goods necessary to get the export market going. Freedom of movement for the population must be increased, so that former employment opportunities could be re-activated.
The access to consumer goods does not alter the status of the population, he said. Some 1.5 million people had been trapped for over four years under the “illegal and inhumane and counter-productive blockade on the Gaza Strip”. It was more than a humanitarian crisis; it was an economic crisis, as well as a crisis of physical infrastructure. It was also a psychological crisis, especially for the 800,000 children. Now, however, progress was possible. “Let us seize the opportunity,” he said.
Addressing a question about fuel for the power plant, Mr. Ging said that access to fuel was not the problem, as there was an arrangement with Israel that provided access to fuel on a scheduled basis. The question was: who should pay, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas? That was a purely intra-Palestinian problem, he said.
Responding to a question about reports through Wikileaks that United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had asked diplomats to look into possible contacts between UNRWA staff and Hamas and Hizbullah, he said that UNRWA was fully transparent and accountable. It enjoyed the full confidence of its beneficiaries and donors, including that of the biggest donor to the organization. It delivered its services and aid according to its obligations and the standards set.
As for Canada realigning its aid from the educational programme to humanitarian emergency needs, he said that any reduction in the educational budget would mean that the needs of children would not be met, especially vulnerable children with special educational needs. Such a reduction would translate into academic failure, dropouts and overcrowded classrooms. He was confident, though, that the Canadian concerns, including about the curriculum and about allegations of staff being influenced by Hamas, could be addressed, since independent audit reports, including from the United States State Department, had given UNWRA a “clean bill of health”.
Asked about his contacts with Israeli authorities, he said he had encountered an “abundance of goodwill” at all levels and was encouraged by the interaction. Despite Israel’s complex political and security situation, he would build on that positive development in order to move forward at a faster pace, starting with education and infrastructure.
* *** *For information media • not an official record