Press Conference on Humanitarian Situation in Gaza

9 January 2009

Press Conference on Humanitarian Situation in Gaza

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

Press conference on humanitarian situation in gaza


United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes today welcomed the Security Council’s adoption of a resolution last night calling for an “immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, but told reporters it was extremely disappointing that so far, both sides had ignored the measure.

“So, the situation is different in the sense that we have a Security Council resolution -- that’s good news diplomatically -- but the situation is also the same, if not worse, on the ground,” said Mr. Holmes during a Headquarters press conference on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.  He praised the resolution’s humanitarian elements and underscored the world body’s reasonable expectation that the parties should comply with the terms of the text as soon as possible.

“What we need is a full and lasting ceasefire so that we can do what we need to do to take care of civilians, because [they] are not safe anywhere in Gaza until there is a full ceasefire,” said Mr. Holmes, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.  He also stressed the rising civilian toll among the 792 dead and 3,200 injured, according to figures deemed credible by the United Nations.

Joining the press conference via video link, John Ging, the Director of Operations in Gaza of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that relief workers in the war-torn territory had awakened this morning to the “good news from the Security Council, which has generated some realistic basis for hope”.  But, as the day had worn on, that hope was waning as UNRWA staff resumed caring for more than 21,000 people seeking refuge in some 27 schools to escape from the “very real dangers that are still ever-present here at the moment”.

Both Mr. Ging and Mr. Holmes expressed regret about having to suspend aid delivery and restrict staff movement for more than a day in Gaza after Israeli strikes killed one UNRWA driver and injured a second, although the Agency had received Israeli clearance.  Mr. Holmes told reporters that, while the “easy headline is ‘The UN suspends aid,’” not all the world body’s operations in Gaza had been halted -- only those involving the movement of vehicles, which restricted aid deliveries.

Though the decision to suspend aid activities had been a “horrendously difficult one to take”, Mr. Ging stressed that reliable assurances were necessary for the world body’s agencies and staff to safely and effectively carry out their operations on the ground.  The “brave and dedicated” UNRWA staff were eager to continue with their activities, he added.

Also present was Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, who read out a joint statement by UNRWA and the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East (UNSCO), which said the Israeli military informed the United Nations that it “deeply regretted” the incidents that had led to the suspension.  She also said the Organization had received “credible assurances" that the security of its personnel, installations and humanitarian operations would be fully respected.

Responding to several questions, Mr. Ging said UNRWA would resume its operations “as soon as practical”, and acknowledged that, after yesterday’s incidents, the Agency had lost confidence in the mechanisms being used to provide clearances.  He said that UNRWA had never set out to prescribe what the mechanisms would be, but only wanted to be able to rely on the information that was provided and that its security would not be compromised due to poor coordination or breakdowns in communication.  “There is already enough risk here […] and we don’t want that added to because of inadequate, poor or malfunctioning coordination mechanisms,” he said.

Indeed, while UNRWA’s immediate interlocutors were “dedicated and hardworking” the mechanism had failed.  He added, however, that the Israeli military had said it had put in place a solution to their problems.  “The level of the assurance is what gives us confidence […] from the highest levels of the Israeli Government.”  So, UNRWA planned to take the assurances in good faith, “get on with our work and deal with the next reality”, he said.

Reporting on the current humanitarian situation, Mr. Holmes noted that some aid was getting through the crossings from Israel, but said the problem was moving it around within the Gaza Strip amid the fierce fighting.  A further complication was that the trucking company the United Nations had been relying on for its aid deliveries had severely scaled back its operations out of concern for the security situation.

Continuing, Mr. Holmes said Israel had again instituted its third successive three-hour truce today, which had been useful in that it gave the beleaguered civilian population of Gaza “a little bit of relief from the constant bombing and shelling and violence”, as well as the ability to move around to some extent, to have access to the wounded, to bury their dead.

The humanitarian pause also enabled technicians to repair infrastructure on the power side and on the water side.  “But let me emphasize again:  it does not create an environment where there is free and safe access to basic services for long enough for the population to be meaningful,” he added.

He went on to say that the food situation continued to deteriorate, with 80 per cent of the 1.5 million people in need of assistance, the health situation was “extremely worrying”, with access problems for hospital staff, most of Gaza was without power, and solid sewage waste was piling up.

For his part, Mr. Ging told reporters that the intensity of the bombing had remained “consistent” and “relentless”, which had left the Palestinian population traumatized and sleep-deprived.  The noise of the drones was also exacerbating the psychological effects of the fighting.  Responding to a question, he said that the development of the next generation of Palestinians was one of UNRWA’s top priorities.  He was frustrated that some 200,000 children who should be attending school had so far this year been unable to do so because of the fighting.

Moreover, he continued, the deleterious impact of daily violence that overshadowed the lives of young Palestinians needed to be countered.  UNRWA “gave great emphasis” to the development of their mindset, orientation and outlook, and stressed human rights education.  “Something we all need to realize is that one of the unseen consequences of all this violence is its impact on the mindset and outlook of the kids coming up,” he reiterated.

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