UN official urges steps to ensure Gaza crisis does not lead to further extremism

John Ging, UNRWA Director for Gaza, visits UN school damaged in Israeli attack on 7 Jan. '09. (AP Photo/Fadi Adwan)

23 January 2009 – There is growing anger in Gaza over the recent Israeli military operation that inflicted death, damage and destruction in the territory, a senior United Nations official warned today, stressing that ensuring accountability and restoring the local economy are the main ways to make certain the conflict does not create more extremists.

“People are increasingly angry about what has happened here. That is perfectly understandable. But we want to channel the emotions now into something constructive and positive,” John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told a news conference in New York via video-link from the ground.

The 22-day offensive, which Israel launched on 27 December with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks, claimed over 1,300 lives and wounded more than 5,450, in addition to causing widespread damage and destruction.

Mr. Ging cautioned that those bent on extremism have been “emboldened” by what has happened because it has generated a high degree of grief, frustration and despair.

He stressed the need to restore the people's confidence that there will be accountability and that they can rely on the rule of law being applied equally, fairly and objectively. “That is a big, big challenge,” he said, noting that there is a lot of cynicism on the ground as to whether that will be achieved. “If we don't then we are defeated by the extremists. It's as simple as that.”

The other priority is to restore people to a dignified existence, and the key there is the crossing points. He said he understood there are political, operational and security challenges to opening up the crossings, “but it is time to put the people's interests before all other and find solutions.”

“Ordinary people here have carried the burden for far too long. They've paid a phenomenal price,” he said, noting the suffering endured by Gaza's 1.5 million residents as a result of Israel's closure of crossing points into the Strip.

“We have to actually prioritize their needs, stand with them and realize that change means opening up the crossing points, and from that will flow all other elements that we hope to achieve in terms of positive impact, and not just on the daily lives of the people here but also on the perspective in terms of security, stability and the peace process,” he stressed.

“We need now to focus on getting the crossing open, that will then facilitate and enable not only the humanitarian effort but the restoration of a dignified existence for the people here.”

The issue of crossings also came up during a meeting last night between Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes and Israeli officials, with Mr. Holmes underscoring the need for regular and unimpeded movement of humanitarian aid workers and relief supplies into Gaza.

Mr. Holmes had a chance to see for himself the impact of Israel's offensive during a visit to Gaza yesterday, accompanied by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry.

They met with many of the victims of the violence, as well as medical teams and representatives of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, all of whom were at the forefront of the humanitarian response.

The UN humanitarian chief said the level of human suffering and destruction he witnessed was “heartbreaking,” adding that it is “shocking that civilians suffered so disproportionately in this military operation.”

Meanwhile, all schools run by UNRWA in Gaza are scheduled to open tomorrow – one week later than the current school semester was supposed to have started. The schools will focus on the children's psycho-social needs in the first weeks of operation, before resuming the teaching of core subjects.

In addition, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reports that a mine action assessment team involving the UN Mine Action Service arrived in Gaza today to look at the scope and scale of the unexploded ordnance problem.

UNSCO stressed that the number of trucks allowed into the Gaza Strip needs to be increased. In particular, it is crucial that the Sufa crossing be opened for basic construction materials to allow for the repair of public infrastructure and private homes.

In addition, chronically ill patients who were receiving care outside of the Gaza Strip prior to the conflict urgently need to resume their treatment.

UNSCO also notes that cash has still not entered the Gaza Strip – except for the staff of a few international organizations. Cash is urgently needed to reactivate the private sector and prevent increasing dependence on aid, UNSCO underscored.

For its part, the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) has adopted a resolution requesting that WHO's Director-General send a specialized health mission to Gaza, with the aim of identifying urgent health and humanitarian needs and assessing the destruction of medical facilities.


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