The Electronic Intifada 25 November 2008
The Electronic Intifada’s correspondent in Gaza, Rami Almeghari, sat down with UNRWA Chief of Operations in the Gaza Strip, John Ging, to discuss how the siege, and the latest closures are affecting UNRWA and the civilian population in Gaza. UNRWA is the UN agency responsible for providing aid to millions of Palestinian refugees. On 4 November, Israel sent tanks into the Gaza Strip and carried out attacks which killed six Palestinians, breaking a ceasefire that had generally held since June. Palestinian militias retaliated by firing rockets at Israel. Since then Israel has tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The Electronic Intifada: Mr. Ging, How do you describe the situation in the Gaza Strip under strict Israeli closure for more than two weeks now?
John Ging: The situation is very desperate at the humanitarian level, I mean people have been stripped of their dignity here, it is a struggle to survive for every body. 750,000 of the people here in Gaza are children of the one and half million population.
Today we have good news: the crossings have opened to allow in vital humanitarian aid an fuel, so we now look at this as the first step in a positive direction, we hope.
EI: Have they actually been reopened today?
JG: Yes, yes, yes this morning the fuel has come in for the power plant, our trucks are coming in with food aid, and wheat is coming in for the mills.
It’s a small, very small quantity that is coming in, but it’s the first resupply in over a week, and the situation, as I say, had become very desperate, and we hope, now, that it’s, as I say, the first step back to a positive situation here.
EI: You as UNRWA, which provides services to more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, how do you deal with the frequent humanitarian crisis with Israel closing the border crossings from time to time?
JG: We are finding it increasingly difficult. It was unprecedented that we ran out of food, which we did over 10 days ago. The closures are becoming more and more restrictive, the situation here is getting worse and worse. Sadly, it’s not new news from Gaza, bad news from Gaza does not get headlines any more, that’s part of the problem. But there are a million and half people living here; all the time the situation is becoming more and more difficult for them.
They are paying a very heavy humanitarian price for the actions of extremists, firing these rockets into Israel, which we condemn outright. But, there was five months of a ceasefire in the last couple of months, where the people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence. We in fact at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food.
There has to be a change in approach, a change in a policy, we now, hopefully, enter a new period of the ceasefire. Good news for the civilian population in Israel, no more rockets being fired. Now we want to see the civilians here in Gaza benefit from the ceasefire, so that they have restored to them a dignified existence, which is very simple, open the crossings, let people move freely, allow exports, allow imports, create confidence among the population that this the way to go. No violence, security, peace and so on.
EI: Which party do you blame for the ongoing conditions, bearing in mind that Israel three weeks ago carried out attacks on Gaza, prompting Palestinian resistance factions to respond by firing homemade rockets?
JG: this is a conflict and there are two parties to the conflict, now the bottom line is that all parties, have their responsibilities and they have international legal responsibility to protect the civilians, who are innocents in this conflict. I am seeing here first hand, that the innocent civilians, 750,000 children in Gaza, are paying a severe humanitarian price for the political failure that has given rise to this conflict and for the conflict itself. So, what we need to do is we need to focus all sides on their responsibility and the responsibilities are very clear: to end violence and to get us back on a track, where the conflict can be resolved through a political process.
Each side has their clear responsibilities in that regard and their actions have to be held to account to international legal standards.
EI: It has been obvious in the past several years that UNRWA or the UN in general is no longer able to forge any kind of settlement of solution for the ongoing situation between Palestinians and Israelis? How do you comment?
JG: No, UNRWA’s responsibility is to provide human development of the next generation through our schools, we have 200,000 children in our schools. We are to provide humanitarian assistance, medical care, primary health care to a million refugees, food assistance and other emergency support to over half a million who are destitute. This is our role, we are here to do that, we are not a political organization, we have not been given a mandate to be involved in resolving the conflict. We are simply here to attend to the human development and the humanitarian needs of the population, the Palestinians, the Palestinian refugees who are caught up in this conflict.
Rami Almeghari is contributor to The Electronic Intifada, IMEMC.org and Free Speech Radio News. Rami is also a former senior English translator at and editor-in-chief of the international press center of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service. He can be contacted at rami_almeghari A T hotmail D O T com.