Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Director of Gaza Operations for UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees

8 January 2009

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Director of Gaza Operations for UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees

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

PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS, DIRECTOR

OF GAZA OPERATIONS FOR UN RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES

The need for a full and immediate ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was becoming more desperate by the hour as continuing violence rendered humanitarian activities increasingly difficult and, in some respects, almost impossible, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said at Headquarters this afternoon.

Indeed, the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had been suspended today following the killing by Israeli tank fire of one driver and the wounding of another in a clearly marked aid convoy less than a kilometre from the Erez crossing.  A second convoy dispatched to recover the body of a United Nations staffer had come under small arms fire in Gaza City during today’s three-hour lull in hostilities.

Mr. Holmes, who was joined via video link by John Ging, UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza, emphasized that both convoys had been the subject of careful coordination between the Agency and the Israel Defense Forces through the Israeli liaison office and had been given the green light.

“This is a very, very difficult decision for us to take,” Mr. Ging said.  “The population here are in a dreadful state and really need our help, but we also have a responsibility to our staff.  We cannot fly in the face of the security situation we find ourselves in.”

The accumulation of incidents against UNRWA staff and facilities, including Tuesday’s shelling of an UNRWA-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, were above and beyond the reasonable risks of a conflict zone, he continued, suggesting that the credibility of the mechanism in place to coordinate humanitarian operations with Israeli authorities had broken down.  “If they give us the clearance to move, it is wholly and totally unacceptable that their soldiers on the ground are firing on our aid workers.”  Until satisfactory assurances of those workers’ safety could be made, the movement of all UNRWA staff would remain frozen.

He stressed that the key to a resumption of the Agency’s humanitarian efforts was a cessation of violence on both sides.  There was an urgent need to end the fighting.  Israel’s around-the-clock bombardment had left Gaza’s streets largely deserted and “eerie”, given the enclave’s reputation as one of the most densely populated places on Earth.  However, there was an absence of anger among Gazans.  They were not anti-Israeli, but at a loss as to why the hostilities were allowed to continue.

Mr. Holmes said that another factor in the decision to suspend UNRWA operations was the fact that the transportation company employing the drivers killed and injured today was the only one authorized to handle the goods crossing at Erez or Kerem Shalom.  Until a ceasefire was reached or better security guarantees were provided, that company had decided it could no longer operate.  That meant that, even if the crossings were open, and even if another company were convinced to operate in Gaza, all movement of significant goods was suspended.

He reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had also decided to suspend operations.  After gaining access to one residential area near Gaza City, its staffers had found 12 corpses lying on mattresses, with, in some cases, small children lying next to their dead mothers, too weak to stand up on their own.  In adjacent buildings, 18 survivors, some of them wounded, had been found, in addition to three other bodies.  ICRC had been shocked to discover an Israeli military post located some 80 metres from the house, yet no one had intervened in the days since the deadly attack.  Rather, the rescue team had been ordered to leave the area.

He said ICRC was arguing that the situation contravened international humanitarian law, an issue that he had raised with the Israeli authorities to ensure the security of humanitarian efforts.

Turning to broader issues in the humanitarian efforts in Gaza, he said the local Ministry of Health was reporting a total of 758 fatalities since the start of hostilities.  About 34 per cent, or 257, of those killed were children and 7.5 per cent, or 56, were women.  There was a total of 3,100 injured people, of whom 1,080 were children and 452 women.

Although the United Nations could not independently verify those figures, they appeared credible, Mr. Holmes said, noting the rising incidence of civilian casualties, including whole families buried in houses hit in the bombardment.  On the other hand, Hamas militants continued firing mortars and rockets into Israel, with total fatalities holding at 4 and more than 30 injured.

Meanwhile, the number of displaced people had risen from 16,000 yesterday to almost 20,000 today, he said.  Many of them were now in UNRWA shelters, which were located in schools for the most part.  As a result of the overall crisis, public health concerns were growing and hospitals were struggling without enough supplies or workers.

Fuel supplies had entered Gaza and the number of people with running water at some point during the day had increased by 300,000, he said.  But sewage pumps were still not working on a widespread basis and the power plant had not been started because the damage to its delivery network was that it was pointless using the fuel until the delivery of power to the local population could be guaranteed.  In addition, the Kerem Shalom, Erez and Rafah crossings open in different ways, but there was no final confirmation that some 80 trucks scheduled to enter had been able to do so.

Asked if he could state unequivocally that Israel was responsible for the incidents in questions, Mr. Ging said that, while that Israel might dispute its role in the future, it had not yet done so.

In response to several questions about the tunnel systems in Gaza and what the targeting of those networks might mean, he said he could state categorically that none of those tunnels emanated from United Nations buildings.  Furthermore, the Israelis had never alerted him that such might be the case.

Responding to a question about Israel’s claims that militants had been operating out of the school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, he said he was confident after visiting the site that no militants had been inside the building at the time of the bombing and no fire had come from within.  However, Israel’s position on the issue had shifted to suggest that militant fire had come from the vicinity of the school rather than from inside.

Those responsible should be held accountable for the use of force as regulated by international law, he said.  Had the response been appropriate and proportional?  Had the duty to have a care for the civilian population within and in the vicinity of the school been discharged?  Presumably, Israel accepted that, beyond the two militants they had thus far named as being among the dead, the 41 other casualties were civilians.

Responding to a question about various weapons reportedly used in Gaza, Mr. Holmes said there was no indication at present that cluster bombs were being used.  Some assessments by Norway suggested that phosphorus-filled weapons were being used, but ICRC had said it had seen no evidence.

Asked where and when the United Nations had suspended humanitarian operations in the past, Mr. Holmes stressed that only UNRWA’s activities had ceased, not all United Nations humanitarian efforts.  While the World Food Programme was considering a similar decision, other organizations such as the World Health Organization continued their work.

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