The United Nations

Office at Geneva


8 January 2009

Marie Heuzé, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the press briefing which offered information on the latest developments in the Gaza Strip on the eve of a Special Session of the Human Rights Council to address the human rights situation in the Gaza Strip. Speaking were representatives of and Spokespersons for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Far East (UNRWA) by conference call from Jerusalem, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Christopher Gunness of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Far East (UNRWA), speaking in a conference call from Jerusalem, said that the situation in Gaza was dire and the humanitarian crisis was deepening with each hour. One million persons at least in Gaza were without electricity and 750,000 persons were without water. All the hospitals in Gaza were running on emergency generators 24 hours a day. UNRWA had food supplies for some days, not weeks. UNRWA fed Palestinians on an ongoing basis. Of the 750,000 beneficiaries, food was distributed to around 20,000 Palestinians on a normal day. UNRWA needed full warehouses to carry this out and with that context in mind, it had shortages of food.

As for the three-hour pause yesterday, Mr. Gunness said UNRWA used it to get access to a shelter in the north of Gaza that had been cut off for days; they got down to the south and they refuelled some UNRWA vehicles in areas where they had not been able to distribute food; and they had begun the process of recovering some damaged food stocks in the north. UNRWA throughout the day yesterday continued with its most urgent humanitarian activities, not just during the three-hour pause. Six UNRWA distribution centres were functioning yesterday. However the situation was extremely volatile and dangerous for the UNRWA workers, despite the pause, as there were still Israeli positions and it was very difficult to be able to move around Gaza. There was a window for about half an hour yesterday when patients and others were able to travel on the north-south road. Today UNRWA hoped to be able to get fuel into Gaza, as well as food and other essential non-food items. The bulk of UNRWA’s supplies came through the Kerem Shalom crossing point. There were two commercial shipment points known as Karni, where there was a conveyor belt for industrial quantities of grain, and UNRWA had been pressing for it to be open. The other was the Nahal Oz crossing for industrial fuel supplies. The reason why one million persons did not have electricity yesterday was because they were not able to get fuel to the main power plant, which had led to wide-spread shortages. Also there were 10 transformers and six power lines that had been damaged and they were doing all they could to get them working.

Mr. Gunness said as far as the three-hour pause was concerned, it was not enough. What happened to the people of Gaza during the remaining 21 hours in their day? They saw yesterday the spectacle of people coming out of their destroyed homes or bunkers, scurrying for food for three hours and then returning. As a UN Spokesperson he obviously had to welcome the pause, but it was still very troubling to see people who were only given a three-hour pause, and then the bombardment came. Israel called the bombardment pinpoint vertical strikes, but nonetheless this had left many many civilians dead. UNRWA wanted a permanent ceasefire. Just having a humanitarian corridor, which had yet to be properly established, was not enough. It was not enough just to get the trucks through the humanitarian corridors to the UNRWA warehouses, once they got to the food distribution centres, people obviously had to come on foot or donkey carts to these centres. If people did not feel confident enough during the pause, and these were people who had been under an aerial bombardment for 12 days now, then it did not work. UNRWA urged for the words of the Secretary-General to be heeded as it was incumbent that the three-hour pause was turned into a permanent ceasefire. The people of Gaza had suffered quite enough and it was time for the guns to fall silent and for UNRWA, the largest humanitarian actor in the Gaza Strip, to be allowed to operate full time to bring humanitarian assistance to these shattered communities.

Asked to respond to the Israeli claims that militants fired rockets from inside a UN shelter before the incident in Jabaliya two days ago, Mr. Gunness said they had certainly made an initial investigation into the incident which initially killed 30 people and 55 were injured, 15 of those seriously. Since then, 10 of the injured had died. He was authorized to say that the Israeli army in private briefings with diplomats had admitted that their assertions were wrong and that indeed the Israeli intelligence now showed that the rockets were fired from outside the UN compound, and the accusations, which were made quite quickly and forcefully against UNRWA, were entirely baseless. He was glad to be able to set the record straight because UNRWA’s initial investigation had certainly shown that the rockets were not fired within the school compound.

UNRWA was demanding an impartial investigation into this incident and it would like a full disclosure of the facts. UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to come forward and to give to any investigation any information they had on this incident because it was the view of UNRWA that where there had been violations of international humanitarian law, and where it was shown that people had violated this law, then they had to be brought to justice.

In response to a question on whether UNRWA had received guarantees from Israel that UN shelters in Rafah would not be bombarded, Mr. Gunness said his understanding of the situation was that around 20,000 persons had left Rafah and a vast majority had gone to stay with relatives, and they were not noticing large numbers of people turning up at the UN installations. UNRWA had now expanded the number of installations in the Gaza Strip to 27, and around 15,000 persons had taken refuge in them. UNRWA was doing its best against the odds to ensure that they had blankets and bedding and other emergency materials in these shelters.

Speaking about the medical supplies in the hospitals and health centers, Mr. Gunness said the health system in Gaza had in general collapsed because doctors and nurses had been working almost 24 hours a day for almost two weeks now so they were quite literally completely exhausted. As for drugs, the problem for UNRWA was delivering these drugs while their convoys could get into harm’s way. All hospitals in Gaza were on emergency generators, which was not a normal situation. To make the power grid functional, they had to mend the transformers and power lines and get proper levels of fuel into the power plant in Gaza. Hospitals had been completely overwhelmed. As for food supplies, before June 2007 and the so-called Hamas takeover, UNRWA used to get an average of 475 trucks into Gaza daily, and as the blockade against Gaza tightened, that slowed down. UNRWA needed its warehouses to be full and permanent supplies of food materials and not to have to worry about whether it was going to get food in tomorrow and whether it was going to run out, and that sadly was the situation today.

Asked further about the three-hour recess as the pause was referred to by Israel, Mr. Gunness said it was quite difficult for UNRWA to understand from the Israeli authorities what they intended to do. Communication on the ground was good, but it was when things moved to the political echelons that they started to make phone calls and people did not answer their phones. The pause yesterday was from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the afternoon local time, and UNRWA had been notified that that was when the pause would be held today again. The people of Gaza were terrified and traumatized and they needed to have the confidence to be able to come forward to the food distribution centres. In order to get the food prepositioned to the 12 food distribution centres, the trucks had to be working through the day, but this of course was very hazardous. For the moment, there was deepening food insecurity, and vast areas of Gaza were cut off and isolated from humanitarian assistance. The ground offensive clearly increased the food insecurity, which again was why UNRWA wanted a permanent ceasefire. The most difficult areas to reach with humanitarian aid were in the north, where there had been severe fighting. There were also areas in the south which were cut off. The fact that there was a fence around Gaza meant that there was no such thing as safety. When people found leaflets that there was going to be military activity in an area, going to safety was a misnomer as there was no safety in the Gaza Strip. It was vital that the neutrality of United Nations’ facilities, UNRWA installations and others were respected, because if it was not respected, people would not feel a sense of safety. It was a genuinely terrifying situation to be in. The sheer mental terror that they people went through was terrible. The suffering had reached an unbearable pitch. Everyone was looking to the Security Council to see that the Council became relevant here. The sooner the resolution got through, the sooner the message got through that the international community was sickened.

Dominik Stillhart, Deputy Director of Operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva said ICRC’s main operational concern today was clearly access to the wounded. Medical emergency personnel, particularly the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, must be granted safe passage around the clock so that they can reach the wounded, treat them and if necessary take them to a medical facility. The three-hour suspension of hostilities was clearly a positive and welcome step in the right direction, because it is easing temporarily the situation for the Palestinian people. But in terms of evacuating the wounded, they needed access 24 hours a day because wounded could not wait for the next suspension. They had had cases of wounded persons dying because ambulances could not reach them. Only yesterday, the Palestinian Red Crescent had come to a place in Gaza called Zaitoun, four days after they were called. They found three houses, in one house there were 12 dead bodies, as well as four children still alive next to the dead. In another house, there were 15 survivors, many wounded, and in another house, there were another two corpses. This had happened only 80 metres away from the Israeli Defence Force position. They did not allow the Palestinian Red Crescent to access these places, and clearly failed their own obligation to care for the wounded, regardless of which side they belonged to.

ICRC called for around the clock access to move the people. Mr. Stillhart said the ICRC surgical team that went into Gaza a few days ago was now fully operational. The team was exhausted. A second surgical team was also on the way as the hospitals were overflowing with the wounded. Also ICRC managed to bring fuel to all hospitals in Gaza as they were all working on generators. He was happy to say that they were able to bring fuel to all hospitals in northern Gaza. ICRC had also evacuated another 250 foreigners yesterday. ICRC delegates had accompanied Gaza electricians and technicians to repair two power lines in order to re-establish the electricity.

Asked whether he considered the event in Zeitouna a war crime, Mr. Stillhart said under international humanitarian law, there was an obligation by all parties to care for the wounded and sick. Clearly in this particularly incident, the Israeli Defence Force on the spot did not fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law.

In response to a question, Mr. Stillhart said since the beginning of the conflict, they had been trying to improve the coordination mechanism with the Israelis. There was a coordination mechanism, but for example, out of 15 or 20 requests to access wounded persons in a certain place, they received a green light three or four times. They needed to increase the number of green lights they received from the Israeli Defense Force in order to go in and evacuate the wounded. Yesterday for the first time the situation had slightly improved and they were really hoping that the situation would further improve. Three hours to evacuate the wounded was clearly not enough. International humanitarian law stipulated that wounded and sick people had to be cared for by the parties to the conflict.

Asked about figures on the dead and wounded, Mr. Stillhart said according to ICRC figures collected from the 14 hospitals, there were 3,070 wounded, one third of them women and children, and 683 dead.

Elena Mancusi Materi, Senior Liaison Officer of UNRWA in Geneva, responding on a question on whether UNRWA’s provision to Israel of the GPS positions of its schools and shelters to avoid their targeting had in fact helped Israeli target them, said the UNRWA’s provision of GPS coordinates of all the UN installations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Israel certainly did not aim to have these installations easily identified for the purpose of damaging them. The GPS coordinates were not given out to the Israelis just prior to this crisis, but it had been standard practise in the Occupied Territories for the past years.

Fadela Chaib, Spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said available at the back of the room was a release issued last night as well as an account of the health situation in the Gaza Strip which was issued daily. The health services in Gaza, already depleted and fragile, were on the point of collapse if steps to support and protect them were not taken immediately. WHO had called for immediate improvement in the situation to make humanitarian health services accessible by the local people. Among the deaths in the attacks in Gaza were 21 medical personnel; 30 injured; and 11 ambulances hit in the violence and military activities, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Life-saving medical supplies could not reach those in need because they continued to pile up at the borders to Gaza. Also, access to care was compromised, hospitals were overwhelmed and health workers were exhausted. Power failures were also a constant risk. In response to an earlier question on evacuations of injured persons to Israel or Egypt, she said that on 7 January, 131 patients were evacuated through Rafah in the south of Gaza, mostly patients wounded in the attacks but also some chronically ill patients. These patients went to Egyptian, Saudi and Libyan hospitals. On 7 January, 22 patients waited to be evacuated through Israel.

In response to another question, Ms. Chaib said that for the time being, WHO was not aware of the outbreak of any communicable diseases. But in such situations, WHO was worried about food-borne and water-borne diseases

Paul Garwood of the World Health Organization, responding to a question on whether medical supplies were entering the Gaza Strip, said yesterday a consignment of supplies from the Norwegian authorities and another from WHO had entered into Gaza. Supplies were entering into Gaza, but the major issue was distribution of these supplies due to the insecurity preventing proper access.

Elizabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said concerning the funding situation, a note was available at the back of the room. Concerning the 2008 appeal for Gaza, it had been revised upwards to $ 516 million, of which they had received $ 42 million in contributions (8 per cent) and pledges for
$ 2.9 million. So still missing was $ 475 million. It was expected that the appeal would further be adjusted according to needs.

Asked if John Holmes, the Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, planned to visit Gaza, Ms. Heuzé said UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry had left New York yesterday for the Middle East and the Secretary-General himself would be in the region next week and might visit Gaza, but she did not have his final schedule yet.

Ms. Byrs said Mr. Holmes was closely monitoring the situation and had met with donors on Tuesday to update them on the priorities.

Ms. Mancusi Materi said UNRWA had issued an urgent appeal for the Gaza crisis requesting $ 34 million on 1 January, and this appeal had now received pledges for 60 per cent. This was in addition to UNRWA’s share of the Consolidated Appeal.

Emilia Casella, Spokesperson for the World Food Programme in Geneva, responding to a question on how well the three-hour humanitarian recess worked yesterday, said WFP did not specifically achieve anything as it was too short a notice to mobilize additional work on top of what had already been programmed. Yesterday, WFP was able to provide flour to 30 bakeries. In addition, it was able to carry out food distributions in Gaza City and Khan Younis, together with its partners. But these activities were not specifically relating to the three-hour recess. Now they needed to start moving food in, or risk running out of food in February.

Ms. Mancusi Materi said the three-hour ceasefire was primarily significant for people to come out of their houses and try to collect food, find water. For UNRWA, these three hours did not make any major difference. UNRWA needed to move, and endeavoured to move, its vehicles and staff at all times, for example to proceed towards Kerem Shalom. Three hours was not enough to make any difference operationally. In order to deliver food aid to 750,000 people, UNRWA needed a permanent ceasefire. Yesterday UNRWA distributed food from 6 out of 10 distribution centres that they had in the Gaza Strip, with the southern area remaining uncovered due to security conditions.

Rolando Gomez of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the Special Session would start at 11 a.m. on Friday, 9 January, with a statement by the President of the Council to be followed by a speech by the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. A statement would be read out on behalf of Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as a statement on behalf of all the Special Rapporteurs. This would be followed by statements from concerned countries, and a long list of other countries and some UN bodies. It was possible that the Special Session might spill over until Monday, 12 January.