Press Conference

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



John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and John Ging, Director of Operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip, both painted a bleak picture of the worsening humanitarian situation in the enclave today.

At a Headquarters press conference, Mr. Holmes said the crisis was increasingly worsening as Gaza’s people suffered cold, hunger and lack of water, in addition to the constant threat of shelling, even as they had already been made vulnerable by an 18-month blockade.  Although food distribution by UNRWA had become increasingly dangerous, the priority was to get enough wheat grain into Gaza.  The “conveyor belt” of the Karni border crossing was important in that regard, but it had been closed for 10 days.

In addition, the situation of the health system had become more precarious, he said, noting that it was in danger of being overwhelmed by the number of victims of the violence and threatened by a lack of power since fuel to run the generators had run out and spare parts had become increasingly scarce.  Non-urgent cases had to be turned away and there was a lack of bed space and staff.  Medical teams waiting to go in had been unable to do so and, in any event, movement by medical teams within Gaza was also difficult.

Although it was difficult to get casualty figures on both sides, more than 500 people had died and over 2,500 people had been injured, he said.  The number of civilian casualties was unclear, but, according to UNRWA, at least 25 per cent were civilians.  It appeared that the proportion of civilian casualties was rising since the beginning of the ground operation.  Whatever the exact figures, it was clear that high numbers of civilians were being killed or injured and the conduct of hostilities was profoundly worrying to the humanitarian community.  Both parties were reminded of their obligations under international humanitarian law to refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects, and from indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.

Although one crossing had been opened today to allow fuel into Gaza, only 450,000 litres had entered the enclave, just enough for a one-day operation of the power plant, he said.  Clean water and sanitation were also a problem, added to which was finding shelter for thousands of people, and moving goods owing to the damage to infrastructure.

He said he had been working closely with Israeli authorities on re-opening border crossings, noting that 60 trucks had entered Gaza today through the one at Kerem Shalom.  It was to be hoped that others, such as those at Karni and Rafah, would be opened for the evacuation of patients and the importation of medical supplies.

Mr. Ging, speaking via video link from Gaza, said he had entered Gaza today and witnessed a deteriorating and shocking state of affairs.  The most overbearing impression was an emptiness occasionally broken by a family running away with their suitcases.  There were also the ongoing sounds of shelling, drones (unmanned aircraft) and the ground operation.  The people of Gaza were “terrorized and traumatized” and felt trapped as they could not leave the enclave.  Their houses were not safe and they had not had electricity since 31 December 2008.  That meant people had no television and therefore no news, and could not use mobile phones.  They felt completely isolated.

Emphasizing that stocks were low, he said UNRWA had only been able to distribute food from two centres.  However, all but 5 of its 22 health centres had been opened at great risk to staff.  Access to services was risky, but there was an urgent need to get wheat, fuel and medical staff into Gaza.  Although a medical team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been able to accompany him into Gaza, more access was needed for medical personnel as those already working in the enclave were exhausted.

He said crossing into Gaza had taken him from 9 o’clock in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, after which physical obstacles placed on the roads by the Israeli Defence Forces had had to be removed to facilitate passage.  Extensive coordination with military operations had also been necessary.  Skeleton UNRWA staffers in Gaza were working under dangerous circumstances, overwhelmed by the challenge.  The situation was “unbearable and intolerable”, which was why a ceasefire was needed urgently.

Asked what contingency plan had been prepared for the period after the expiration of the ceasefire, he said nobody had expected a situation where more than 500 people would be dead and over 2,500 others injured.  The conventional wisdom had been that there was no military solution to the conflict.  Gaza had been suffering under a commercial embargo for 18 months and under a kind of “humanitarian assistance embargo” for five.

Stressing that “everybody” had been put on notice regarding the vulnerability of the Gaza population, he said it had been the political responsibility of all sides -– Israelis, Palestinians and the international community -– to ensure that the current crisis did not happen.  The present situation was the consequence of political failure for which everybody bore their own individual responsibility.

As for the feelings among the population and whether they blamed or supported Hamas, he said the population was traumatized and bewildered by the “absence of accountability” for the situation.  They held both Hamas and Israel accountable for their actions, as well as the international community for what they were “doing or not doing”.  The absence of protection and accountability, set against legal standards such as humanitarian law, were the core of the problem.  “Absent the rule of law it is the rule of the gun.”  That would feed into the rhetoric and arguments of extremists.

Answering questions, Mr. Holmes said he had not seen reports of cluster bombings and that he would condemn their use “very strongly” if they were used.  As for the proportion of civilians killed, it was difficult to define a civilian, since the conflict was not like a normal one in which combatants wore uniforms.  But, on the basis of the number of women and children among the victims, one could say at least 25 per cent of the casualties consisted of civilians.

Mr. Ging added that an UNRWA staff member accompanying a medical team had been killed in the combat zone yesterday, although the team had not been fired upon directly.  The dead man had been a school teacher volunteering to accompany a four-member medical team.  The driver of an ambulance belonging to the charity organization Oxfam had also been killed.

Asked about Israeli officials who denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Mr. Holmes reiterated that the crisis was “worsening day by day” as appeals for a halt to the violence fell on deaf ears, not only on the Israeli side, but also on the Hamas side, as the firing of rockets into Israel continued.

Responding to a question on the sewage problem, he said that, even before the start of the current crisis, 40 million litres of raw sewage had been pumped into the sea daily because of a shortage of power and spare parts.  That would probably worsen because of the growing lack of power.  The danger was that, if the wall of a “sewage lake” in northern Gaza was hit accidentally, an enormous flood of sewage would result in the loss of life.

Answering other questions, the Under-Secretary-General said UNRWA had launched an emergency appeal for $34 million last week.  Within the overall appeal for 2009 of $460 million, the most urgent projects were being identified so that donors could respond to them.

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For information media • not an official record