Press Conference by Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Process, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on Situation in Gaza

7 January 2009

Press Conference by Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Process, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on Situation in Gaza

7 January 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference by special coordinator for Middle East peace process,

Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs on situation in gaza

Following recent diplomatic activity and today’s break in fighting, an end to the Gaza crisis was in view, Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, warning, however, that there were still many obstacles to the immediate and permanent ceasefire so desperately needed by Gaza residents.

“After several days of Security Council meetings and active diplomacy in the region, it seems that the elements for a way out of this crisis are rapidly emerging,” said Mr. Serry, who had been recalled from the region for urgent consultations ahead of meetings on the situation.  “But more work needs to be done quickly to flesh out the package and secure the buy-in of crucial players.  The beginning today of a short lull on the ground is a good step, but not nearly enough.”

Mr. Serry was accompanied by John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.  John Ging, Director of Gaza operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), participated by videoconference.

The Special Coordinator said he planned to return to the Middle East tonight and the Secretary-General would follow next week, by which time there would hopefully already be a ceasefire in place.  The Secretary-General planned to visit several capitals to try to “lock in” the elements of an international consensus and help to consolidate a peaceful and sustainable way forward.

“Clearly, a return to the status quo ante cannot be an option,” he said, reiterating the elements stressed by the Secretary-General as crucial.  They included an immediate and permanent ceasefire and unencumbered humanitarian access, but also properly functioning borders to curtail smuggling.  The assistance of third parties would be needed to provide supervision.  In addition, the enormous aid and rebuilding needs must be met, the reunification of the Palestinian Authority must be accomplished, and progress must be made on a lasting peace agreement.

Mr. Ging, speaking from Gaza, said today’s three-hour lull in the fighting was a major event.  It was the first time in 12 days that people could move around.  It was a “phenomenal feeling”, he stressed; people were in the streets everywhere, carrying containers for water, food and other essentials.  They had arrived by the thousands at UNRWA distribution centres today, and even greater numbers were expected during tomorrow’s announced lull in the fighting.

Describing how impressed he had been with the stoicism of Gaza residents, he said they still looked to the United Nations for hope, while continually asking him:  “Why is it allowed to continue?” concerning the attacks; and, “Why only three hours?” about the ceasefire.  They needed safety now, but they would have to wait with “bated breath” for 21 hours until the next lull.

Mr. Holmes said humanitarian workers had been unable to take full advantage of the first lull because of a lack of warning and clarity about its implementation.  Gaza was still divided and it was hard to get things around.  Hopefully, future pauses in the fighting would be better utilized, but three hours per day was still totally insufficient.  There was no substitute for a full, immediate ceasefire, given the “increasingly appalling” humanitarian situation.

The latest unverified estimates projected 680 dead, with more than 3,000 injured, he said.  Most residents still had no power or water and sewage was collecting dangerously.  Hospitals were overburdened and undersupplied.  Dreadful incidents continued to occur, such as the attack on a school in which 43 people were estimated to have been killed.  It must be investigated so as to avoid such incidents in the future.

With regard to humanitarian aid getting into Gaza, he said the Kerem Shalom crossing was open and 79 trucks had passed through it with food and medical supplies.  The Erez crossing point was expected to be open tomorrow to admit around 10 more trucks.  Around 200,000 litres of fuel had also been brought in, which might be enough to restart the power plant.  Cooking gas had also been brought in for bakeries and hospitals.

In response to questions, Mr. Ging said he had seen no evidence to support charges that banned weapons were being used against civilians in Gaza, or that militants had been operating out of the UNRWA-supported school before yesterday’s terrible tragedy.  Agency staff had reported that no fighters had been there, and they were aware that it was completely against UNRWA policy for them to allow combatants to use the building.

Asked if the United Nations had any information on the position of Hamas on current proposals for a permanent ceasefire, the panellists said the Organization did indeed have channels to Hamas and had used them often -- for example, to warn the group about the consequences of ending the calm before the start of the current crisis.  However, the leadership was underground now and would respond once a package was put together by the international community.

Mr. Serry said he realized that “Hamas was the big elephant in the room” and that “we must be sure all players know what to do”, in fulfilling their obligations.

Asked whether Egypt was complicit with war crimes because its border with Gaza was closed, the panellists protested that such was not the case at all, stressing that the Egyptian Red Crescent had been very active in aiding the wounded and that the Rafah crossing had been opened for assistance purposes.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.