Press Conference on Gaza Humanitarian Situation by World Food Programme Official

29 January 2009

Press Conference on Gaza Humanitarian Situation by World Food Programme Official

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


Joining the chorus of United Nations officials calling for the uninterrupted opening of border crossings into the Gaza Strip, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Regional Director for the Middle East today said that meeting the immediate needs of Palestinians left traumatized and homeless by Israel’s three-week war with Hamas required the free flow of not just emergency food, but fuel, medicines and necessary building supplies.

World Food Programme’s Daly Belgasmi, whose responsibility also includes Central Asia and Eastern Europe, told correspondents during a Headquarters press conference that the sporadic border closings were only adding to the challenges the agency faced as Operation Lifeline Gaza scaled up deliveries of nutrition-fortified date bars, ready-to-eat meals for hospitals and schools, as well as sugar, wheat flour and vegetable oil.

He said WFP’s portion of the wider United Nations appeal for $613 million, announced earlier today in Davos by the Secretary-General, was $82.3 million.  That was “really the minimum to be able to provide some assistance to the people in need”.  The formal appeal would be announced by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs next week in Geneva.  His agency had enough stocks in Gaza for the next three weeks, and was providing school meals of milk, date bars and bread to 30,000 children to encourage attendance and improve nutrition.

The Operation aimed to reach some 365,000 people and, he said, together with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the United Nations was feeding a little over 1 million of Gaza’s roughly 1.4 million inhabitants.  “There are sad, traumatized people in Gaza, who, even before this war, had nothing in their homes but what has been given them by WFP,” he said, stressing that borders, which Israel again briefly closed on Tuesday following a border bomb attack, had to be open on a continuous basis and restrictions on the movement of people and goods lifted so that urgently-needed assistance could reach the population.

“The crossing points remain very, very challenging,” he continued, noting that each of the five border crossings -– Erez, Rafah, Karni, Kerem Shalom and Sufa -- presented specific logistical challenges.  For instance, at Kerem Shalom, the largest and perhaps most critical of the lifelines into Gaza, WFP and other agencies not only had to deal with security measures, but with complicated pick-up procedures:  trucks dropped goods off, shipping and customs documents had to be checked and then the process might simply stall while crews waited on the Palestinian side for pack animals and delivery men to get to the staging area to pick up the shipments.  The process of picking up the goods on the Gaza side was also hampered because there were not enough trucks or enough fuel, and no spare parts for repairs.

The United Nations had a “very strong and very capable team” coordinating activities with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv, at Kerem Shalom and the other borders to address logistics as well as the on-again, off-again situation with the borders.  “We are doing our best, but the closure of the crossing points is a critical challenge,” he said, stressing that, after Israel’s earlier 18-month blockade, the food chain in Gaza had collapsed.  Many basic food items were no longer available in the market, and the price of available commodities such as cooking gas and fuel had increased sharply.  After this latest round of fighting, if the borders were not opened for the free movement of goods as well as people, the problem would only worsen.

Responding to questions, he acknowledged that supply trucks were backed up on both sides of the Gaza Strip -- the Egyptian and particularly Israeli borders.  “It’s not perfect,” he said, but the situation was improving, even if only incrementally.

On tough political issues, including Hamas’ role in the recovery effort and one reporter’s charge that Egypt and the wider Arab world had done nothing while the war inside Gaza had raged, Mr. Belgasmi said that humanitarians tried not to get bogged down by politics.  “We are firemen.  We go in and put out the fire -- in this case, feed the people -- and go on with our work,” he said, stressing that WFP, at least, believed that its work was helping to build the peace and promote the self-sufficiency of the Palestinian people.  Indeed, by targeting schools and hospitals with feeding programmes, WFP was hoping to help address immediate needs and provide the tools to build a foundation for hope for a better future in Gaza.

“The challenge is to get jobs.  When you have, today, unemployment of 70 per cent, people should work on construction […] We need to get them items for construction, we need to get the hospitals working, we need to get the schools coming back to a normal educational life,” he said.

WFP was also carrying out its operations in a way that would allow space for other humanitarian actors, including other United Nations agencies, and especially private companies and non-governmental organizations that could directly assist small farmers and businesses, whose work was vital for the survival of the people in Gaza.  He also stressed that reconciliation among Palestinian factions was another key to long-term recovery in Gaza.  “By making peace among themselves and forgetting about ideologies”, Palestinians could contribute to the broader effort to promote peace and development in Gaza.

* *** *

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