The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is the lead UN agency working for Palestinian refugees. Its compound and schools, sheltering displaced Gazans, have come under Israeli attack during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which began on 27 December with aerial bombardments and was combined with a ground assault beginning on 3 January.
Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire on 18 January. John Ging, head of UNRWA operations in Gaza, spoke with IRIN by phone from Gaza City on 17 and 18 January.
IRIN: Is UNRWA able to deliver assistance to Gaza residents under the current conditions? What type of assistance is being delivered and to how many recipients?
JG: The warehouse and all its contents were destroyed [in the 15 January Israeli attack on the UNRWA compound], and we could not deliver that day.
John Ging, head of operations in Gaza for UNRWA
Gaza is now cut in two, so we are supporting the northern area and Gaza City from the [UNRWA] compound. The following day [16 January] we resupplied the compound from our warehouses in the south. We are continuing with our operations. Trucks are moving, but not safely.
There are 50,000 people are in our temporary shelters in our schools – they have to be fed every day. Some 80 percent of the [Gaza] population is food dependent on us.
IRIN: Did UNRWA trucks only move during the daily three-hour lull to deliver humanitarian assistance?
JG: We would not be able to support our operation effectively if we were limited to three hours. People were working around the clock in our installations to provide assistance.
The three-hour lull was for the people to feel safer to come out to get the assistance.
Bringing in goods from Kerem Shalom [border crossing] is a day’s effort, at least 16 hours, then the supplies have to be unloaded and the goods prepared for distribution.
Today [17 January] 50 trucks entered via Kerem Shalom, but we need hundreds of trucks. The needs are growing exponentially and the pipeline for humanitarian supplies is very narrow. Even those, such as Palestinian Authority employees, who were not dependent [on UNRWA assistance], have become dependent. There is nothing on the market and there is no cash.
Aid – emergency supplies, food and medical - is coming in through Rafah.
Food distribution is operating at almost full capacity – it is interrupted in certain places day to day when the place becomes the scene of fighting. We do all we can on a daily basis that is within the margins of safety for our staff to keep the operations running.
Seven of 10 food distribution centres are fully operational and 16 out of 20 health centres are fully operational.
UNRWA health staff are volunteering in the Ministry of Health hospitals and on ambulances teams – it’s all hands on deck here!
IRIN: If the border crossings are not opened consistently to bring in goods, will this increase demands on UNRWA?
No safe place in Gaza
Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
A UNRWA aid worker in a Gaza warehouse
said that two children who had taken refuge in its school in Bet
Lahiya, north of Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip, were killed by Israeli
shells on 17 January.
“There is no safe
place in Gaza. We carry on distributing food wherever we can in
coordination with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces],” UNRWA spokesperson
Chris Gunness told IRIN on 17 January, hours after the attack on the
school. On 15 January a UNRWA warehouse in Gaza City burned down
completely after a direct hit from the Israeli army.
The Israel defence ministry said its army retaliated after militants opened fire from there.
A warehouse belonging to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society was also
shelled by the Israelis on 15 January and was reduced to ashes,
according to a 17 January update on Gaza by the ICRC. The ICRC said
that “very substantial stocks of relief goods were destroyed” in the
UNRWA distributes food to some 750,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza.
Since Operation Cast Lead began, an estimated 50,000 Gaza residents
have taken up refuge in UNRWA schools and compounds.
Gunness has said that all those who have taken up refuge in the schools
will be given food regardless of whether they are on UNRWA list or not.
JG: We cannot contemplate that the crossings will remain closed; there must be a better future. The ordinary people here during this siege have paid the price of this conflict and this operation. For them, their singular priority is access to restore dignity to their existence.
The closures have driven thousands into aid dependency against their will – that has to end. A solution that prioritises the needs of the ordinary people must be found.
IRIN: You have headed UNRWA’s operations in Gaza since January 2006, before Hamas won elections to govern the enclave. Will Israel’s military operation bring peace and stability to the region?
JG: No – it is counter-productive to that objective. The scale of death and destruction is most definitely counter-productive. Throughout this conflict so many experts and global leaders have highlighted there is no military solution to this conflict – an effective political solution is needed.
Now there are additional problems: so many people have been killed and [there has been widespread] destruction of infrastructure. There is no finance ministry or foreign affairs ministry. The American School, the presidential compound and the presidential residences have been destroyed – in addition to the massive destruction of housing. It will be very costly to restore Gaza. This money should have been invested in development not reconstruction.
IRIN: What do you say about Israel’s unilateral ceasefire?
JG: Today [18 January] is a better day than yesterday and we hope there will continue to be positive developments every day until we can restore a dignified existence for the people in Gaza.