20 January 2009 – In the darkest hours of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza, when his own headquarters was shelled and went up in flames, when children were dying or being horrifically injured, the top United Nations official on the ground drew inner strength from the bravery of his own staff – and from a vision from his own homeland, Ireland, of reconciliation between implacable foes.
“I drew it from the staff around me,” Gaza Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) John Ging told the UN News Centre in a Newsmaker interview.
“I always look at the ambulance driver who races out the gates and into the front lines to rescue people. There were two sides to the conflict – the humanity and courage from ordinary people to do a phenomenal job to help their fellow human beings. And then you witness the consequences of inhumanity – that’s the negative side. My colleagues here, both the international and national staff around me, are emblems of humanity and courage.”
Mr. Ging, who became the public face of the UN at ground zero with his daily video-linked briefings during the three weeks of the offensive Israel launched with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks, is no stranger to conflict and violence.
He served with UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon in the 1980s and worked for the Irish non-governmental organization GOAL in Rwanda for two years during the genocide and its aftermath, and later spent nine years during the Balkan conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.
It was his experiences in Rwanda that really brought home to him that humanitarian work was a categorical imperative in his choice of vocation. “It was from then on that I was convinced that this was the kind of work that I would prefer to do – when I hope to look back on my life, I want to measure my life’s worth in terms of the difference you can make to the lives of ordinary people,” he said.
“It’s not about the accumulation of wealth, the rank you achieve or the position you hold. It’s really the difference you make to the lives of ordinary people, that’s what I value most – and it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do that. There go any of us but for our good fortune that we are not in that predicament ourselves.”
Mr. Ging, who oversees a staff of 10,000 who provide aid for some 750,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza, half the total population, says the vast majority of Gazans want to live in peace with Israel, adding that he has had nothing but positive experiences in his interactions with all Israeli officials at every level, with civil society and the business community.
“My experience with civil society, and I don’t have that much experience with the Israeli side, other than those I deal with, but here in Gaza, the people want a stable, secure and peaceful relationship with their neighbours. They want the issues of the conflict resolved within a political process,” he said.
“I am always humbled by the fact that they are deeply civilized in their understanding of the dynamics of this conflict and are not anti-Israeli. Time and again this is proven when I go out there and I talk to so many people. They are able to rationalize what is happening and the dynamic behind all of this, as they hope the Israeli people can also do likewise. They don’t label them for the actions of a few.
“So civil society here do not support the firing of rockets into Israel terrorizing the people there and they hope the people of Israel appreciate that, just as they don’t blame the people of Israel for the actions of their military,” he added.
And what about the future given the apparently irreconcilable positions of Israel and Hamas?
“The bottom line is I grew up on this,” Mr. Ging said, referring to the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland. The image that sticks in his mind in recent periods is (pro-British Protestant) Ian Paisley and (pro-unified Ireland Catholic) Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy at a press conference in Brussels in 2008.
“I grew up listening to them sending a message to their respective supporters that was very intolerant. Ian led the campaign against the peace agreement when 90 per cent were in favour of it. Yet in a period of ten years, he came around to sharing power with the adversaries that he claimed he never would.
“It was a bitter conflict in Northern Ireland, two human beings who were extremely intolerant of each other for decades and inspired others to be the same. They resolved differences through the political process and came around to being a poster image of what was possible. They were genuinely smiling side-by-side at Brussels.”
And a final bottom line?
“You must remember it was the people who demanded an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland,” he replied. “It all depends on the mindset and orientation of the people. I actually draw a lot of hope from my experience, limited as it is, with the Israeli side but which has been so positive. Also here in Gaza, the foundation is already in place – a good and decent people, civilized and politically sophisticated.”