23 January 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Israel’s 22-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip had not only demoralized Palestinian civilians, it had emboldened extremists in the region, the head of United Nations relief operations in Gaza said today, as he warned that only the immediate opening of the Strip’s crossing points to allow the flow of aid and commerce, and the launch of a credible independent probe into alleged wrongdoing, could quell rising Palestinian anger.

Describing the tiny, densely populated Strip as a scene of “utter devastation”, John Ging, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said in press conference at Headquarters that a devastating blow had been dealt to the Palestinian peoples’ hopes for the future as their neighbourhoods, schools and business –- from an ice cream manufacturer to a cement factory –- now lay in ruin.

“We are facing a phenomenal challenge,” he said, speaking to reporters via video link from Gaza.  The offensive, which Israel launched on 27 December with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel, has claimed, according to UNRWA estimates, over 1,300 lives and wounded more than 5,450, in addition to causing widespread damage and destruction.

“People are increasingly angry about what has happened here,” said Mr. Ging.  “That is perfectly understandable.  But we want to channel the emotions now into something constructive and positive.” 

Mr. Ging warned that, if the war-weary and frustrated Palestinian civilians did not see a clear change in the international community’s approach -– starting with helping to restore the local economy and ensuring accountability for wrongdoing –- their mounting anger would be “grist for the mills of those […] bent on extremism” in the region.  Indeed, he said, those forces had been very much emboldened by the events of the past two or three weeks and were looking to feed off the anger to promote their causes.

Responding to a question, he said that extremists in the region were cynically telling the people that they should not expect justice through the rule of law and that the only way for them to ensure accountability “is at the end of a gun or at the end of a rocket”.  So it was time now for the international community to step up and ensure the rule of law.

Vital in undercutting such efforts was establishing accountability –- by establishing an independent investigation -- so that the people’s faith in the international community and the rule of law could be restored.  “That is a big, big challenge,” he said, noting that there was mounting cynicism on the ground as to whether the rule of law could be applied in a fair and just manner.

He further emphasized that it would be critical to restore the dignity of Palestinians in Gaza, and the key to that would be opening up all borders and crossing points.  Such a move would facilitate the flow of humanitarian goods and material for reconstruction efforts.  Once those efforts were under way, the civilians could begin positively contributing to the broader peace process.  “Ordinary people here have carried the burden for far too long.  They’ve paid a phenomenal price,” he said, highlighting the suffering endured by Gaza’s 1.5 million residents as a result of the ongoing closure of major crossing points.

Mr. Ging urged the parties and the wider international community not to be distracted by the political process of the past three or four years, “because it is clear that those efforts have failed utterly and horribly”.  The diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East peace process had called for a new way forward and it was time for a serious stocktaking to that end.

Telling one correspondent that, in the United States, there had recently been a significant step forward for change, he said:  “We have to actually prioritize [the Palestinian peoples’] 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.”

Asked to layout exactly what it would take for the humanitarian community to consider that real recovery was under way in Gaza, Mr. Ging said there were currently 120 trucks of humanitarian supplies coming into Gaza every day.  To put that in perspective, everyone needed to remember that just 18 months ago, 600 trucks were coming in every day “and there was still a humanitarian emergency in Gaza”. 

“There is absolutely nothing in Gaza,” he continued, calling for a “big surge” to get materials in to start up long-flagging business and industries critical to promoting socio-economic development.  It was also necessary to get materials and goods out, so that textile manufacturing and agricultural industries could get back up and running.

He said that, while the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access had spoken very clearly on that issue, since 2007, no exports whatsoever had gone out of Gaza and, during the most recent fighting, the number of trucks coming in had dipped to a low of 20 or so a day.  It was clear that only 1,000 or more trucks coming in a day would speed recovery and reconstruction, which would ultimately cost billions of dollars.  Above all, he said the commercial crossing at Karni needed to be opened as soon as possible, and that was the only span capable of bringing in the huge amount of supplies needed.  “If Karni remains closed, I’m sorry to say, we are going to stay very much where we are and all the negatives that will flow from that,” he said.

Reiterating his appeal for restoration of confidence in the applicability of the laws of war and the setting up of effective mechanisms for people to go with their grievances, he acknowledged how “massively complicated” such efforts would be.  The issue was highly complicated and emotional and, often, the truth ended up being one of the greatest casualties of the ongoing tensions.  The acid test would be ensuring that any independent investigation was credible and effective for both Palestinians and Israelis.  Asked about the negotiations to establish such a mechanism, he said that he was aware that “many were seized with the issue, as it were, [in New York], but here, we’re working against the clock”.

“The truth of the matter is that Israelis too had been killed and wounded and lost property during the conflict,” and any mechanism must be implemented in equal measure for both sides, he stressed.  Still, he would not like to see the cynics or extremists in Gaza claim a victory, because another truth was that the latest fighting had dealt a serious blow to efforts to find a peaceful solution.

Asked about negotiations with Hamas, and the legitimacy of Hamas in Gaza and throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Mr. Ging said that one of the main problems had been that all stakeholders had always been dragged into the “black hole of political complexity”.  It was time now for the international community to turn its attention to the plight of ordinary people who wanted freedom of movement and the fundamental right to pursue a livelihood.  Specifically, he said, the obstacle to lifting the blockade was a political one, but many people on all sides had offered workable solutions to get the crossings operational notwithstanding the political complexities.  Those ideas need to be seriously and urgently considered.

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For information media • not an official record