REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
5 August 2014
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme.
Pernille Ironside, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking over the phone from the Gaza Strip, explained that she had been present in Gaza for a year and for the entire duration of the latest escalation.
Ms. Ironside stated that there was some reason for optimism with the commitment to the 72-hour truce starting at 8 a.m, but exchanges of fire could be heard just before 8. UNICEF was waiting and hoping for some positive signs but at the same time she stressed that ceasefire alone was not enough. It was really necessary that the blockade of Gaza was lifted and there was a more sustainable remedy for the Palestinians in Gaza.
Presenting the situation of children in Gaza, Ms. Ironside stated that, even before the latest conflict, most of the school-age children were required to be in school for only four hour per day because schools had to run double shifts as there were an insufficient number of schools in Gaza and no possibility of building additional schools due to insufficient land and difficult access to building material. In addition, there were electricity cuts and water shortages across the Gaza Strip day and night.
Ms. Ironside explained that even for those who managed to finish school, the perspectives of getting a job were very limited because of the economic situation. The overall unemployment rate was 41,5 per cent, but for those under 29 it was even higher and stood at 59 per cent. A child over the age of 7 had already lived through two wars in 2009 and 2012.
In the present conflict, Ms. Ironside said over 392 children had been killed. There was not a family in the Gaza Strip which had not been affected either through a direct loss, demolition of property or displacement. The impact on children could not be overestimated. Ms. Ironside said that she had visited hospitals and seen some of the surviving children who saw their siblings and other family members die before their eyes. About 370,000 children in Gaza had had some kind of direct traumatic experience and required immediate psycho-social support.
According to Ms. Ironside, the overall situation was extremely difficult and no UN agency could fully cope with such a sudden massive displacement of population. Ms. Ironside said that the humanitarian community was doing its best through, for example, the delivery of survival kits, the installation of water points and the provision of all kinds of support, food and other life-saving necessities; but at the same time the UN and the humanitarian community were finding it difficult to cope with the existing situation.
UNICEF warned that children faced all kinds of communicable diseases that had to be contained as best as possible. Some communities did not have access to the drinking water and were in a terrible state, which could cause the death of children, particularly of those under the age of five. The Gaza power station had been damaged by multiple strikes; 8 out of 10 electrical feeder lines had been damaged. Electricity was required not only for the luxury of having one’s light on but also for the pumping of water stations, waterfalls, sewage pumping stations, sewage treatment plants; all the infrastructural services that were not functioning at the moment. She mentioned that she had personally visited several sanitation facilities that were directly struck, and highlighted that it was not a matter of repairing but completely rebuilding the infrastructure. She said that the impact on the population as a whole was truly devastating and that children were the most vulnerable group.
Answering a question about cost estimates, the time it would take for reconstruction and the responsibility to pay for the damages, assuming that the fighting stopped, Ms. Ironside said that an early recovery group was meant to be looking at the cost of reconstruction. Only keeping the families who had lost their homes in some kind of shelter over the next year would cost around USD 40 – 50 million. The total cost of recovery and reconstruction would probably be several hundreds of millions of USD. She added that the question on who should be paying should be closely considered.
In response to a journalist who underlined the fact that the Israeli authorities could decide again not to let building materials enter Gaza, Ms Ironside said that it was indeed a crucial question. She pointed out the fact that there were people just finishing rebuilding their homes in 2014 from 2009 when their homes were destroyed again. A new system needed to be established with different rules of engagement that would hopefully include permission to bring materials into the Gaza strip.
Answering a question on the scale of destruction, Ms. Ironside said there was no doubt about the impact of this conflict, and asserted that the thousands of missiles that destructed Gaza over the past months had far surpassed even the combined impacts of the two previous escalations, both on the population and in terms of the impact on the infrastructure. The cost was certainly far greater than anything people had seen before; the international community could not accept that it was going to engage the rebuilding of Gaza on the same terms than before.
To a journalist asking what an average person could do to try to help given that there was little access to the area, Ms. Ironside suggested that every citizen of the world had a voice and that it was very important that people voiced their opposition to what had happened there, and what continued to happen. She said then there were also many organizations who were doing good work in terms of relief and recovery assistance to which people could contribute, either financially or through their skills.
On a question about what the future of a baby born in Gaza today would be, Ms. Ironside said that the future for children in Gaza, whether infants or conscious of what had been happening around them, was extraordinarily bleak. The entire population had experienced serious shocks. People had lost entire strands of their family in one blow. There was now a deep wound one had to consider healing, as part of the investment in the reconstruction and the future of Gaza. The situation should not be allowed to revert to what it had been before the new escalation, an entire closure of this 1.8 million people with no access to an economy, import and an export of goods, no movement of people outside the borders. The international community had a responsibility not to allow that to happen. The accountability and the investment opportunities were needed for Gaza and the rest of Palestine to be able to run their affairs, while Israel’s security concerns had to be assured.
Answering to a question on what could be done, especially for children, Ms. Ironside said that the best thing would be to establish a permanent ceasefire ending the violence once and for all. UNICEF would continue to deliver supplies to displaced persons and to have their psycho-social teams on the ground doing their utmost to reach out to all the families impacted by personal loss. While those were important and necessary responses, there would need to be an overall solution.
Answering another question, Ms. Ironside said that rockets had been discovered in UN installations on three occasions, which was a clear violation of the sanctity of schools and of the UN installations. Such a context required an investigation that would look in all dimensions of the conflict in a transparent manner leading to the truth as to what had taken place, and hopefully to justice and accountability.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), informed that as of 3 August, the WFP had reached almost 312,000 conflict-affected people in Gaza with emergency food assistance. That was an increase of more than 56,000 people since 31 July.
WFP in cooperation with UNRWA had begun a large scale effort to bring fresh bread to people in shelters. The aim was to bring 10 metric tons of bread from Jerusalem to Gaza each day. That relieved the significant pressure on Gaza bakeries who had power outages, damaged infrastructure, a lack of fuel and security constraints. The bread was also a key element of the ready-to-eat food for people in shelters. Bakers in the West Bank might join the effort in the coming days adding another 10 metric tons of bread daily to the Jerusalem quantity.
A total of 12 WFP trucks had crossed Kerem Shalom crossing on 3 August, with canned meat, milk, biscuits, wheat flour and fresh bread produced in Jerusalem. WFP was assisting approximately 270,000 displaced people in 95 UNRWA shelters and around 15,700 displaced people at 19 public shelters with emergency food rations. WFP was reaching approximately 2,040 patients and hospital staff with emergency food rations.
WFP had reached a total of 4,000 families (almost 13,700 people) staying in host communities with emergency electronic food vouchers. That was an increase of more than 1,700 families since 31 July. The vouchers had an overall value of approximately USD 128 per month, for an average family of six.
Families could use the voucher to buy locally produced food at local shops and after the launch of a WFP-UNICEF partnership, families also had the option to buy water and sanitation products. Of WFP’s 60 voucher shops in Gaza, 25 shops had been closed on 3 August, due to security conditions, destruction or damage. WFP was working to add additional voucher shops to its programme.
Regarding funding, Ms, Byrs said that the WFP required USD 48 million for its humanitarian response in Gaza for a period of three months. For its regular food assistance, WFP required USD 20 million for Gaza and USD 15 million for the West Bank.
Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that one third of the hospitals and numerous other facilities had been damaged in the fighting. At least 40 per cent of the medical staff were currently unable to get to their place of work. Critical supplies of medicine were almost depleted. More information was available on the WHO’s regional website.
Ms. Vellucci referred to the statement by the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General of 4 August 2014 welcoming the efforts leading to the new ceasefire in Gaza.
Answering a question, Ms. Vellucci stated that the United Nations was doing all it could in Gaza under the current circumstances, and had a strong presence on the ground. The United Nations had repeatedly called for cessation of hostilities. Ms. Vellucci reminded that the previous month the Human Rights Council had adopted a resolution on Gaza.
Answering another question, Ms. Vellucci reiterated that on numerous occasions the UN Secretary-General had expressed himself on the issue of Gaza. All statements were available on the UN website. Just recently, he had stressed that the ongoing “madness” ought to be stopped.