Humanitarian situation in Gaza still difficult, says UN relief agency

23 January 2008 –

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip remains extremely difficult, the United Nations agency tasked with helping Palestinian refugees said today, with Israeli authorities both easing and adding to the restrictions and measures on the transport of goods and people in and out of the area.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that Israel has introduced new security measures – mainly for sugar and flour – that are hampering the delivery of aid in Gaza, where Israel has imposed tight restrictions on border crossings to try to force an end to the daily rocket and mortar attacks launched against Israeli residential areas by militants in Gaza.

UNRWA said it had been able to get in three truckloads of powdered milk today, but had been hoping to get nine truckloads, while an expected truckload of medicines never made it through.

But the agency also noted that it has received materials that will allow it to continue its food distribution operations inside Gaza, where about 1.5 million people live in an area 25 miles long and no more than six miles wide.

UNRWA has been warning in recent days that it will have to halt its many relief programmes to about 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza unless Israel lifts the closure of the crossings.

In an opinion column today in The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd said, “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution.”

Ms. AbuZayd stated that the restrictions mean the overwhelming majority of residents cannot enter or leave Gaza and fuel and electricity supplies are running out, threatening basic infrastructure such as health-care facilities.

“Medication is in short supply, and hospitals are paralyzed by power failures and the shortage of fuel for generators,” she wrote. “Hospital infrastructure and essential pieces of equipment are breaking down at an alarming rate, with limited possibility of repair or maintenance as spare parts are not available.”

Ms. AbuZayd added that the crisis in Gaza was undermining efforts to foster a spirit of moderation and compromise among Palestinians.

“There are already indications that the severity of the closure is playing into the hands of those who have no desire for peace. We ignore the risk at our peril.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva, where is he on an official visit, that he remained “deeply concerned” about the situation in Gaza.

In response to a question from a journalist, who noted that thousands of people have crossed the border from Gaza into Egypt because of the current situation, Mr. Ban urged the parties to resolve their issues peacefully.

“I know this very serious security concern of [the] Israeli people and Government and also I admit their legitimate security right to defend their country from all these security problems, or rocket fire coming from Gaza,” he said. “At the same time, I would hope that the Israeli Government should not take such a collective punishment to the general public.”

Mr. Ban observed that he has spoken by telephone to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to urge him to ease its border crossing restrictions and to provide the necessary fuel and supplies to Gaza.

In related news, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva held a special session today to consider a draft resolution on “human rights violations emanating from Israeli military attacks and incursions in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip.”

Addressing that session, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said the situation for both Palestinians and Israelis will continue to deteriorate unless both the parties to the conflict and the international community take broader steps.

“All parties concerned should put an end to the vicious spiral of violence before it becomes unstoppable,” she said. “To this end, they must ensure accountability for breaches of international humanitarian law and violations of international human rights law through credible, independent, and transparent investigations.”

Ms. Arbour stressed that the international community must intensity its efforts to ensure that the human rights dimension of the conflict is properly tackled, regardless of the progress towards or development a political settlement.

“It is therefore imperative that Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respect the long-standing international legal obligations governing the situation to which they, as duty bearers, are bound.”


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