Press Conference on Gaza Humanitarian Situation

13 January 2009

Press Conference on Gaza Humanitarian Situation

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


The head of United Nations relief operations in the Gaza Strip reported today that fierce overnight clashes between Israeli ground forces and Hamas fighters in and around Gaza City had killed 19 children and wounded 52 others, driven another 5,000 people from their homes, and put even more pressure on severely strained medical facilities that lacked the staff and equipment to handle the mounting casualties.

“I’m sorry to report that the tragic horror continues, and will continue until the guns fall silent,” said John Ging, Director of Gaza Operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  Briefing reporters at Headquarters via video link, he added:  “Every hour that passes here, innocent men, women and children are being killed and injured in a very brutal way […] I hope that this news will motivate those that can help to do all they can to bring this conflict to a conclusion.”

Asked to share his expectations of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s impending arrival in the region for a week of talks with leaders to end the violence, Mr. Ging said that, especially with a Security Council resolution on the table, he earnestly hoped for a ceasefire.  “The people here in Gaza -- every single one of us -- hope that the parties can be brought to respect that resolution,” he said, adding that there was a basis for “realistic hope in the work and efforts of our Secretary-General, which is greatly appreciated”.

Returning to the humanitarian situation, he said that current figures showed that the death toll in the 17-day conflict had risen to more than 900.  Some 4,000 people had been injured, and UNRWA was sheltering more than 40,000 people in 41 schools.  To help the 5,000 newly displaced Palestinians, UNRWA had opened five additional school sites, he said.  Sadly, that was perhaps “only a fraction” of the total number of people driven from their homes -– “those desperate people who have absolutely no where to go” -- because many would have sought protection with their close relatives and friends.  “And as we know, we are not offering ‘safe haven’, we are offering ‘refuge’, because nowhere at all in Gaza is safe at the moment,” he added.

He went on to decry the massive destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, including Government facilities, schools and power stations –- tools that the international community had been working hard to develop, hoping to contribute to the building of a future Palestinian State.

Responding to questions on that point, he said that Gaza’s sewage system, which had been feeble to begin with, had now collapsed due to prolonged power outages forced by waning electricity and fuel supplies for back-up generators.  In Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, sewage was flowing in the streets.  He added that sewage treatment was also lacking and tons of untreated waste was being dumped into the Mediterranean, raising a host of ecological fears and concerns, “not just for Gaza, but the entire region”.

To a related question, he said UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations were equally concerned that, after weeks, some 500,000 people in the Strip still did not have access to running water.  That included 60 per cent of the people in Gaza City.  In addition, 80 per cent of the drinking water in Gaza was not safe for human consumption, according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

“So there is a real fear about outbreaks [of] cholera and other diseases,” he said, adding that many water, sewage and power stations were inoperable because, following the deaths of three utility servicemen in the early days of the conflict, facility managers were wary of sending out staff to repair damaged pipelines.  Moreover, Israel’s daily three-hour “lulls” were not nearly enough time to repair the destroyed water infrastructure.

He said that, while assistance was getting through some of the crossings from Israel, with 90 trucks passing today, another major challenge was the lack of cash being allowed in the blockaded Strip.  That shortage had meant that UNRWA’s 94,000 special hardship cases -- “the poorest of the poor” -– had not received any aid since 18 November.  At the same time, Mr. Ging said his own staff had been paid only half of their December salaries and nothing since then.  He had to “take it on the chin” when he found out today that Hamas had paid its staff, while he had not been able to pay his.

Even amid the devastation, Mr. Ging said that, as he surveyed UNRWA’s operations in the northern and southern part of the Territory, he praised the “truly inspirational work” of the dedicated staff working courageously around the clock, in spite of the circumstances.  He was also heartened by the dignity and perseverance of the civilians in the shelters, despite the horror of losing family members or being displaced from their homes.  Nevertheless, he underscored:  “The pervasive mood continues to be one of fear.” 

He went on to pay particular tribute to the Palestinian ambulance drivers and emergency medical teams who were “for me, the bravest […] that are going right in to the frontline where there is shooting and firing to rescue those who have been injured and get them the life-saving treatment that they need”.  More lives would be lost every day and night but for their tremendous courage and bravery under fire, he added.

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