Press Conference on Gaza Humanitarian Situation

14 January 2009

Press Conference on Gaza Humanitarian Situation

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

PRESS CONFERENCE on gaza humanitarian situation

The pervasive sense of fear in Gaza showed no signs of dissipating last night amid fresh violence that killed 32 people and brought the total number of Palestinian deaths to 1,003, John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said at a Headquarters press briefing today.

Speaking via video link from Gaza, Mr. Ging added that the 64 people injured yesterday had raised the total figure to 4,482, according to the Ministry of Health.  Some 40,000 people were seeking refuge in temporary shelters in 41 schools, and roughly 500,000 in Gaza City and the northern area were without water.  The sewage system continued to be a public health hazard, with no progress seen in repairing it.

On the humanitarian supply front, he said the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings had been opened.  Some 103,000 litres of industrial diesel had been transferred via Kerem Shalom, which kept the area’s power plant running at about 40 per cent of capacity and provided people in Gaza City with about 8 to 10 hours of electricity a day -- a welcome development, since they had been without it since 31 December.  As for food and medical supplies, UNRWA expected 103 truckloads of humanitarian assistance to clear this evening, up by 12 from yesterday.

Through the Rafah crossing, 23 medical cases had been transferred from Gaza to Egypt for treatment.  As of today, 14 of 20 health centres were operational; those that had been closed were in Gaza City and at the Rafah border, the site of much shelling.  Food distribution to refugees continued in 7 of the 10 distribution points; those closed were in areas of fighting.  The so-called ceasefire for humanitarian activity had been between 1 and 4 p.m. this afternoon; however, as in previous days, it had not been widely respected.

Despite their grim reality, those living in the area saw a “glimmer of hope” in diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation with the arrival of the United Nations Secretary‑General to the region to seek a ceasefire.  The challenge lay in realizing that hope amid the death and destruction that continued every hour.

Fielding a question on the Secretary‑General’s decision not to visit Gaza, Mr. Ging said people in Gaza were “delighted” he was in the region, and were looking for a realistic basis to believe that the horrific conflict would end.  “We want the result of his diplomatic effort”, he said.  “It is not essential that he come here physically to Gaza.”  UNRWA supported the Secretary‑General’s decisions on where he needed to be to achieve a ceasefire.

Asked whether refugees had spoken openly about being robbed by Israeli soldiers, or if women had complained of being forced to disrobe, Mr. Ging said they had not spoken to him about those specific events, but had conveyed “horrific experiences” in fleeing the violence.  “Everyone has a really traumatic report to give”, he said, and his Office had consistently said that all such issues should be properly investigated.

Taking a question on a cloud seen lingering over Gaza last night, he said his Office was located in Gaza City about 1.5 kilometres from the area of fighting.  He did not know the cause of the smoke, but it was commonplace.

Asked about the ongoing “news and propaganda” war about -- and in -- Gaza, and whether people could access the latest information, Mr. Ging said those without electricity had little or no access to media.  Prior to the restart of the power plant, the area’s 500,000 people had been “very much in the dark”, as access to information was linked to the availability of electricity.

Responding to a query about a letter delivered by the Israeli ambassador to the Secretary‑General and the Security Council claiming that Hamas was using human shields, and that civilians were dying as a result of Hamas’ placement of weapons caches in civilian areas, Mr. Ging said Hamas and all others on the Palestinian side must be held accountable for their care of civilians in Gaza.  There were allegations that Hamas was conducting operations in the environs of schools.  UNRWA maintained that neither side should conduct military operations in the Gaza Strip because it was impossible to discharge the duty of civilian care.

He stressed that he was calling for both the Israeli and Palestinian sides to be accountable.  If there were proven cases of people being used as human shields, parties needed to be held accountable, in line with the Geneva Convention and laws of war.  “We don’t, in a civilized world, shoot the hostage to get to the hostage taker,” he added.  He had not seen hostages taken.  What his Office witnessed, it reported; however, such issues required proper, independent investigation.

Asked about refugee experiences, he said he had spoken with a grandmother yesterday who, recounting her flight from home, said her family had been killed in the fighting.  Her daughter was killed with her child in her arms, and it was left to the grandmother to rescue the child, which involved crawling 500 metres before she could run.

Taking a query about Israeli criticism of the upcoming UNRWA-OCHA pledging conference, Mr. Ging underlined the obligation to be objective, and to show that there were two sides in the conflict.  Israeli civilians had lived under daily terror of rocket fire for years, and that could not go on.  There was no justification for firing rockets into Israel, a situation which undermined the legitimate pursuit of Palestinian objectives.  The military option was not a solution.

Asked about the time needed after a ceasefire for UNRWA to restart its operations, Mr. Ging said the situation was unprecedented in the scale and scope of military operations and damage to infrastructure.  The violence was compounding an already terrible humanitarian situation.  Over the last year and a half, the economy had been destroyed by an economic blockade.  Today, there was only a narrow window for the passage of humanitarian assistance.  The time needed depended on whether the crossings were opened -- that had to happen, he stressed, underscoring that people in Gaza had been stripped of their dignity.  If the crossings opened, UNRWA could begin a proper recovery, which would take time.

As to whether there was sufficient staff to visually document recent events, he said UNRWA was fully extended in the provision of humanitarian assistance.  It was not in its mandate to do the reporting.  In the case of attacks on UNRWA premises, he said the Office would lodge a formal protest with those responsible for the damage.

As to the future of Hamas, and whether he had heard talk of unification among Palestinians to move on with the peace process, he responded that no, there had been no talk of politics -- of Hamas, Fatah or any political party.  Palestinians were in fear, and they were talking about stopping the violence.  Palestinians did not feel safe in UNRWA schools, and they had a right to feel that way, given recent events.  The conflict must stop before anything else could be considered.

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