REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

6 January 2009

Marie Heuzé, the Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the UN Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme.

Gaza Strip

Ms. Heuzé said since 27 December, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been intensifying his diplomatic activities in an effort to reach an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. He and the United Nations had issued a number of statements which had been put in the press room, the latest being his comments in the press encounter yesterday following a meeting with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States and Foreign Ministers of the Follow-up Committee. The transcript of that press encounter was also available at the back of the room. Today the President of the Palestinian Authority was going to New York for consultations. The Secretary-General’s previously scheduled meeting with President Bush would clearly focus on the situation in Gaza. Today in New York, the Security Council would also hold consultations on the situation in Gaza.

Ms. Heuzé said it was very probable that the Human Rights Council would hold a Special Session on the situation in Gaza this week, probably on Friday, 9 January. The different groups were holding consultations and gathering the requisite signatures to call for the Special Session on the situation created by the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. She hoped there would be confirmation of the Special Session by Wednesday, 7 January. A background press release on the Special Session would be released as soon as it was confirmed. Rolando Gomez was still liaison press officer for the Council and journalists could also check with him tomorrow.

Elena Mancusi Materi of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said UNRWA was the agency primary responsible for providing assistance to the Gaza population, 70 per cent of which was made up of Palestinian refugees. UNRWA echoed the deep concern and alarm expressed by the Secretary-General on the heavy suffering of the population in Gaza, and the regret for disunity of the Security Council in its recent emergency session. The challenges and apprehension for the conditions on the ground, protection of civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid were gravely escalating. UNRWA was witnessing an unprecedented onslaught of one of the most sophisticated military powers, in one of the most densely populated urban environs of the world, on a population prohibited to flee to safety. UNRWA was also highly distressed by the rising civilian death toll. UNRWA underlined the need for an immediate cessation of all violence and for the opening of a strategic humanitarian breathing space. There was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Regular industrial supplies of fuel were necessary to ensure consistent electricity provision to 1.5 million people and the most essential operation of hospitals which now totally relied on generators. Just yesterday, UNRWA provided fuel to four hospitals in Gaza only two or three hours before the generators were going to run out. UNRWA called for the steady opening of the Nahaz Oz crossing point and stability in the provision of Fuel and cooking gas. Intermittent entry of aid consignments was not a sufficient condition to counter the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Ms. Mancusi Materi said UNRWA also wished to highlight the liquidity crisis looming in the Gaza Strip, which needed to be reversed. In the midst of this crisis, cash was a desperate need to the affected population to bear the cost of temporary accommodation, to buy essential household items which had been destroyed, and to bear the cost of burials and the treatment of the injured. UNRWA needed cash to resume the distribution of such aid to the most destitute sector of the refugee population. UNRWA also needed cash to pay salaries to over 9,000 agency staff in Gaza, who had been working around the clock, irrespective of threats to their lives. UNRWA had also opened 22 temporary centres, mainly in UNRWA schools. At the moment, 14,000 people were being hosted in these temporary emergency centres. This figure increased by the hour. Unfortunately, just this morning, one of these temporary shelters was hit by the Israeli Defense Forces and three persons among the displaced hosted there, all from the same family, were killed. After the recent closure, 13 out of 18 UNRWA primary health care centres had now re-started and food distributions continued when security conditions allowed for the movement of trucks. In addition to the $ 275 million 2009 Emergency Appeal for the occupied Palestinian territory issued in December, UNRWA had issued an urgent appeal on 1 January for $ 34 million. The urgent appeal was meant to cover life-saving humanitarian requirements for a four-month period as the needs of the population of Gaza continued to mount in the face of the ongoing military operation. Immediate needs consisted of essential health supplies, food, cash assistance, materials for housing repair and fuel. As of today, UNRWA had firm pledges covering 35 per cent of the $ 34 million.

In response to a question on delivery of the humanitarian aid during the Israeli shelling, Ms. Mancusi Materi said security concerns existed of course. UNRWA moved the aid with its trucks to the people, in close coordination with the UN Department for Safety and Security and with the Israeli Defense Force to try to ensure that the UNRWA trucks were not hit while trying to reach the population. Conditions of movement were increasingly difficult after the start of the ground operation. However, because of UNRWA’s network of staff and their commitment, UNRWA was assuring the distributions took place. Most of the 22 emergency temporary shelters were in UNRWA schools. Unfortunately schools for the displaced were not showing themselves to be totally safe. Contrary to what one would expect, UN premises were also being hit. The location of all UNRWA premises, whether schools or health and distribution centres, were known to the Israeli Defense Forces, in an attempt to prevent attacks, not only from air but also standard ground incursions. During this present crisis, on the third day of the operation, UNRWA’s Gaza training centre was hit and eight students were killed. Ms. Mancusi Materi said she could not say this was a deliberate attack on a UN location, adding that the Israeli Army claimed to only target infrastructure utilized by militants, but in this case obviously it was not.

Ron Redmond of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that last night UNHCR had issued a statement by High Commissioner Antonio Guterres calling for strict adherence to humanitarian principles in the ongoing conflict in Gaza, in particular reminding neighbouring States of their responsibility to provide access to safety for civilians fleeing violence and that all relevant borders and access routes be kept open and safe. The High Commissioner noted that this was “the only conflict in the world in which people are not even allowed to flee”. Also in his statement, Mr. Guterres said it was “absolutely imperative” that the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilian victims to the conflict be facilitated, including access from Egypt and Israel. For its part, UNHCR had provided some emergency assistance to Egypt’s Red Crescent Society for care of any Palestinians admitted into Egypt and it stood ready to deploy an emergency team and equipment to the area.

In response to a question about what would happen if Egypt opened its borders, Mr. Redmond noted that there were actually two countries with borders on Gaza, Egypt and Israel. UNHCR was not trying to encourage Palestinians to leave. UNHCR was merely upholding the universal principle that those subject to violence should have the right to flee. “What they’re called [i.e. refugees, internally displaced persons, etc.] is not something that needs to be decided right now; how long does not need to be decided right now; what we are talking about is the protection of human beings, of families, of children.” In many cases around the world temporary protection had been arranged and as soon as conditions changed, people would go back, as they had done in Kosovo.

Mr. Redmond confirmed that there had been no answer from the Egyptian Government to UNHCR’s plea so far.

Elisabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the latest OCHA situation report on Gaza, dated 5 January, was available at the back of the room. Some $38.7 million had been pledged for humanitarian assistance so far, and Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes was meeting with donors in New York today. That figure included all pledges from States, non-governmental organizations and others. It was not clear if donors considered the pledges to be part of the Consolidated Appeal (CAP) for the region or not.

Ms. Heuzé stressed the need for clarity in the pledges and asked OCHA for a breakdown this afternoon of what the pledges were for – the flash appeal, the CAP appeal, or direct assistance for UNRWA – and Ms. Byrs promised to deliver that information, with a breakdown by country.

Rupert Colville of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that OHCHR endorsed the call by the High Commissioner for Refugees to allow people to seek safety and asylum. That was a fundamental human right. Normally in a conflict situation people could at least think of fleeing, but in Gaza the civilian population was “bottled in” on all sides. OHCHR condemned rocket attacks by Hamas that had led to the deaths of a number of Israeli civilians. Indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas was clearly prohibited under international law. OHCHR also strongly condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force, which had resulted in the reported death of more than 560 people, including a large number of civilians – children, journalists, ambulance workers, police officers, students and others. Such acts were prohibited. In a highly populated area, one had to err on the side of caution. The protection of civilians was paramount under international law. The use of disproportionate force by Israel and the lack of regard for the lives of civilians by both Israel and Hamas could not be justified by the actions of the other side. They constituted clear violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Another key issue was access, Mr. Colville stressed. It was hard to be sure what was going on right now in Gaza. “It is extremely important that not just humanitarian, human rights and medical personnel are able to go in, but also the media”. They would clearly all benefit if there was more information coming out of Gaza Strip as to what precisely was going on.

Paul Garwood of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that WHO was calling for the respect and protection of health staff, patients and health facilities and supplies in the Gaza Strip. In the 18 months leading up to the current crisis, blockade, siege and Palestinian industrial action had progressively weakened the Gaza health system. The system therefore was extremely challenged ahead of the current crisis. Since 27 December, six health personnel had been killed. As of yesterday, there had been two separate incidents where one paramedic was killed and two colleagues in an attack on an ambulance and in a separate incident near a hospital a nurse was severely wounded.

WHO was also advocating for improved humanitarian access into the Gaza Strip, as well as referrals of patients to neighbouring countries, Mr. Garwood added.

Responding to questions, Mr. Garwood said that tomorrow WHO expected to have delivered into Gaza two major shipments of supplies coming from Norway, 50 surgical kits capable of treating 5,000 patients for up to 10 days and further basic medical supplies which could treat 90,000 patients for three months.

Veronique Taveau of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said UNICEF demanded an immediate ceasefire and total access to the Gaza Strip. Owing to the severity of the fighting, it was impossible to get a precise picture of the situation on the ground and the violence was preventing UNICEF staff from being able to access children and vulnerable persons.

UNICEF was particularly concerned about the situation of the 840,000 children in Gaza, Ms. Taveau stressed. Humanitarian aid had to be allowed to pass into Gaza and to be distributed. The humanitarian crisis caused by the current violence in Gaza was hitting children and women the most, Sigrid Kaag, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa had highlighted yesterday. At the back of the room was a statement by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah, UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, who called yesterday on Governments of the region to protect the children of Gaza, as well as a news note with information on what UNICEF was doing to help children in Gaza.

Emilia Casella of the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP was providing food to the vulnerable citizens and the poor in Gaza, with a normal caseload of some 265,000. However, even though WFP had food in the Gaza Strip, the security situation had made it hard to distribute. “Even in places where we can open distributions, people are afraid to go and receive the food”, she said. Since the hostilities had begun rations had only been distributed to some 50,000 as well as bread to 15,000. In addition, WFP had provided canned meat and high-energy biscuits to 13 Gaza hospitals to provide for 6,000 patients and staff for up to one month.

Civilians were finding it increasingly difficult to find food in Gaza, with very few commodities on the market and with only 12 of 47 bakeries functioning yesterday, Ms. Casella said. Flourmills also had no more stocks of mill grain. WFP had 150 trucks with food to be delivered into Gaza just waiting at the Kerem Shalom crossing point. However, yesterday, only 11 trucks had been able to pass through. Actually, the crossing was open on the Israeli side yesterday, but on the Gaza side there was a lack of staff, such as fork lifters and truck drivers, as they were scared to go to work. Moreover the conveyor belt at Kerem Shalom had also not been working since 26 December. It was being predicted that there would be an additional 150,000 persons who would be in need of WFP supplies.

As to whether UNRWA could take over WFP distributions, Ms. Mancusi Materi confirmed that as of yesterday UNRWA had taken over direction of all truck movements in the Gaza Strip in order to better coordinate logistics among the various humanitarian agencies there.

At the end of the briefing and in response to many questions from the Geneva press corps, Ms. Heuzé asked OCHA to provide a clear breakdown on the funding for the current crisis, and requested UNRWA and WFP for clarification on the functioning of the distribution process of food in Gaza by the aid agencies on the ground.

__________

Marie Heuzé, the Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the UN Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme.

Gaza Strip

Ms. Heuzé said since 27 December, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been intensifying his diplomatic activities in an effort to reach an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. He and the United Nations had issued a number of statements which had been put in the press room, the latest being his comments in the press encounter yesterday following a meeting with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States and Foreign Ministers of the Follow-up Committee. The transcript of that press encounter was also available at the back of the room. Today the President of the Palestinian Authority was going to New York for consultations. The Secretary-General’s previously scheduled meeting with President Bush would clearly focus on the situation in Gaza. Today in New York, the Security Council would also hold consultations on the situation in Gaza.

Ms. Heuzé said it was very probable that the Human Rights Council would hold a Special Session on the situation in Gaza this week, probably on Friday, 9 January. The different groups were holding consultations and gathering the requisite signatures to call for the Special Session on the situation created by the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. She hoped there would be confirmation of the Special Session by Wednesday, 7 January. A background press release on the Special Session would be released as soon as it was confirmed. Rolando Gomez was still liaison press officer for the Council and journalists could also check with him tomorrow.

Elena Mancusi Materi of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said UNRWA was the agency primary responsible for providing assistance to the Gaza population, 70 per cent of which was made up of Palestinian refugees. UNRWA echoed the deep concern and alarm expressed by the Secretary-General on the heavy suffering of the population in Gaza, and the regret for disunity of the Security Council in its recent emergency session. The challenges and apprehension for the conditions on the ground, protection of civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid were gravely escalating. UNRWA was witnessing an unprecedented onslaught of one of the most sophisticated military powers, in one of the most densely populated urban environs of the world, on a population prohibited to flee to safety. UNRWA was also highly distressed by the rising civilian death toll. UNRWA underlined the need for an immediate cessation of all violence and for the opening of a strategic humanitarian breathing space. There was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Regular industrial supplies of fuel were necessary to ensure consistent electricity provision to 1.5 million people and the most essential operation of hospitals which now totally relied on generators. Just yesterday, UNRWA provided fuel to four hospitals in Gaza only two or three hours before the generators were going to run out. UNRWA called for the steady opening of the Nahaz Oz crossing point and stability in the provision of Fuel and cooking gas. Intermittent entry of aid consignments was not a sufficient condition to counter the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Ms. Mancusi Materi said UNRWA also wished to highlight the liquidity crisis looming in the Gaza Strip, which needed to be reversed. In the midst of this crisis, cash was a desperate need to the affected population to bear the cost of temporary accommodation, to buy essential household items which had been destroyed, and to bear the cost of burials and the treatment of the injured. UNRWA needed cash to resume the distribution of such aid to the most destitute sector of the refugee population. UNRWA also needed cash to pay salaries to over 9,000 agency staff in Gaza, who had been working around the clock, irrespective of threats to their lives. UNRWA had also opened 22 temporary centres, mainly in UNRWA schools. At the moment, 14,000 people were being hosted in these temporary emergency centres. This figure increased by the hour. Unfortunately, just this morning, one of these temporary shelters was hit by the Israeli Defense Forces and three persons among the displaced hosted there, all from the same family, were killed. After the recent closure, 13 out of 18 UNRWA primary health care centres had now re-started and food distributions continued when security conditions allowed for the movement of trucks. In addition to the $ 275 million 2009 Emergency Appeal for the occupied Palestinian territory issued in December, UNRWA had issued an urgent appeal on 1 January for $ 34 million. The urgent appeal was meant to cover life-saving humanitarian requirements for a four-month period as the needs of the population of Gaza continued to mount in the face of the ongoing military operation. Immediate needs consisted of essential health supplies, food, cash assistance, materials for housing repair and fuel. As of today, UNRWA had firm pledges covering 35 per cent of the $ 34 million.

In response to a question on delivery of the humanitarian aid during the Israeli shelling, Ms. Mancusi Materi said security concerns existed of course. UNRWA moved the aid with its trucks to the people, in close coordination with the UN Department for Safety and Security and with the Israeli Defense Force to try to ensure that the UNRWA trucks were not hit while trying to reach the population. Conditions of movement were increasingly difficult after the start of the ground operation. However, because of UNRWA’s network of staff and their commitment, UNRWA was assuring the distributions took place. Most of the 22 emergency temporary shelters were in UNRWA schools. Unfortunately schools for the displaced were not showing themselves to be totally safe. Contrary to what one would expect, UN premises were also being hit. The location of all UNRWA premises, whether schools or health and distribution centres, were known to the Israeli Defense Forces, in an attempt to prevent attacks, not only from air but also standard ground incursions. During this present crisis, on the third day of the operation, UNRWA’s Gaza training centre was hit and eight students were killed. Ms. Mancusi Materi said she could not say this was a deliberate attack on a UN location, adding that the Israeli Army claimed to only target infrastructure utilized by militants, but in this case obviously it was not.

Ron Redmond of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that last night UNHCR had issued a statement by High Commissioner Antonio Guterres calling for strict adherence to humanitarian principles in the ongoing conflict in Gaza, in particular reminding neighbouring States of their responsibility to provide access to safety for civilians fleeing violence and that all relevant borders and access routes be kept open and safe. The High Commissioner noted that this was “the only conflict in the world in which people are not even allowed to flee”. Also in his statement, Mr. Guterres said it was “absolutely imperative” that the immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilian victims to the conflict be facilitated, including access from Egypt and Israel. For its part, UNHCR had provided some emergency assistance to Egypt’s Red Crescent Society for care of any Palestinians admitted into Egypt and it stood ready to deploy an emergency team and equipment to the area.

In response to a question about what would happen if Egypt opened its borders, Mr. Redmond noted that there were actually two countries with borders on Gaza, Egypt and Israel. UNHCR was not trying to encourage Palestinians to leave. UNHCR was merely upholding the universal principle that those subject to violence should have the right to flee. “What they’re called [i.e. refugees, internally displaced persons, etc.] is not something that needs to be decided right now; how long does not need to be decided right now; what we are talking about is the protection of human beings, of families, of children.” In many cases around the world temporary protection had been arranged and as soon as conditions changed, people would go back, as they had done in Kosovo.

Mr. Redmond confirmed that there had been no answer from the Egyptian Government to UNHCR’s plea so far.

Elisabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the latest OCHA situation report on Gaza, dated 5 January, was available at the back of the room. Some $38.7 million had been pledged for humanitarian assistance so far, and Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes was meeting with donors in New York today. That figure included all pledges from States, non-governmental organizations and others. It was not clear if donors considered the pledges to be part of the Consolidated Appeal (CAP) for the region or not.

Ms. Heuzé stressed the need for clarity in the pledges and asked OCHA for a breakdown this afternoon of what the pledges were for – the flash appeal, the CAP appeal, or direct assistance for UNRWA – and Ms. Byrs promised to deliver that information, with a breakdown by country.

Rupert Colville of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that OHCHR endorsed the call by the High Commissioner for Refugees to allow people to seek safety and asylum. That was a fundamental human right. Normally in a conflict situation people could at least think of fleeing, but in Gaza the civilian population was “bottled in” on all sides. OHCHR condemned rocket attacks by Hamas that had led to the deaths of a number of Israeli civilians. Indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas was clearly prohibited under international law. OHCHR also strongly condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force, which had resulted in the reported death of more than 560 people, including a large number of civilians – children, journalists, ambulance workers, police officers, students and others. Such acts were prohibited. In a highly populated area, one had to err on the side of caution. The protection of civilians was paramount under international law. The use of disproportionate force by Israel and the lack of regard for the lives of civilians by both Israel and Hamas could not be justified by the actions of the other side. They constituted clear violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Another key issue was access, Mr. Colville stressed. It was hard to be sure what was going on right now in Gaza. “It is extremely important that not just humanitarian, human rights and medical personnel are able to go in, but also the media”. They would clearly all benefit if there was more information coming out of Gaza Strip as to what precisely was going on.

Paul Garwood of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that WHO was calling for the respect and protection of health staff, patients and health facilities and supplies in the Gaza Strip. In the 18 months leading up to the current crisis, blockade, siege and Palestinian industrial action had progressively weakened the Gaza health system. The system therefore was extremely challenged ahead of the current crisis. Since 27 December, six health personnel had been killed. As of yesterday, there had been two separate incidents where one paramedic was killed and two colleagues in an attack on an ambulance and in a separate incident near a hospital a nurse was severely wounded.

WHO was also advocating for improved humanitarian access into the Gaza Strip, as well as referrals of patients to neighbouring countries, Mr. Garwood added.

Responding to questions, Mr. Garwood said that tomorrow WHO expected to have delivered into Gaza two major shipments of supplies coming from Norway, 50 surgical kits capable of treating 5,000 patients for up to 10 days and further basic medical supplies which could treat 90,000 patients for three months.

Veronique Taveau of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said UNICEF demanded an immediate ceasefire and total access to the Gaza Strip. Owing to the severity of the fighting, it was impossible to get a precise picture of the situation on the ground and the violence was preventing UNICEF staff from being able to access children and vulnerable persons.

UNICEF was particularly concerned about the situation of the 840,000 children in Gaza, Ms. Taveau stressed. Humanitarian aid had to be allowed to pass into Gaza and to be distributed. The humanitarian crisis caused by the current violence in Gaza was hitting children and women the most, Sigrid Kaag, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa had highlighted yesterday. At the back of the room was a statement by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah, UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, who called yesterday on Governments of the region to protect the children of Gaza, as well as a news note with information on what UNICEF was doing to help children in Gaza.

Emilia Casella of the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP was providing food to the vulnerable citizens and the poor in Gaza, with a normal caseload of some 265,000. However, even though WFP had food in the Gaza Strip, the security situation had made it hard to distribute. “Even in places where we can open distributions, people are afraid to go and receive the food”, she said. Since the hostilities had begun rations had only been distributed to some 50,000 as well as bread to 15,000. In addition, WFP had provided canned meat and high-energy biscuits to 13 Gaza hospitals to provide for 6,000 patients and staff for up to one month.

Civilians were finding it increasingly difficult to find food in Gaza, with very few commodities on the market and with only 12 of 47 bakeries functioning yesterday, Ms. Casella said. Flourmills also had no more stocks of mill grain. WFP had 150 trucks with food to be delivered into Gaza just waiting at the Kerem Shalom crossing point. However, yesterday, only 11 trucks had been able to pass through. Actually, the crossing was open on the Israeli side yesterday, but on the Gaza side there was a lack of staff, such as fork lifters and truck drivers, as they were scared to go to work. Moreover the conveyor belt at Kerem Shalom had also not been working since 26 December. It was being predicted that there would be an additional 150,000 persons who would be in need of WFP supplies.

As to whether UNRWA could take over WFP distributions, Ms. Mancusi Materi confirmed that as of yesterday UNRWA had taken over direction of all truck movements in the Gaza Strip in order to better coordinate logistics among the various humanitarian agencies there.

At the end of the briefing and in response to many questions from the Geneva press corps, Ms. Heuzé asked OCHA to provide a clear breakdown on the funding for the current crisis, and requested UNRWA and WFP for clarification on the functioning of the distribution process of food in Gaza by the aid agencies on the ground.