30 January 2009 – Almost two weeks after the devastating Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza ended, full access for relief supplies is the key issue, above all in curbing a rising tide of extremism, the top United Nations official in the Strip warned today.
“Shamefully, there are thousands of tons of aid waiting on the borders of Gaza that need to be connected right now with the people here,” the Director of Operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), John Ging, told a news conference in New York by video-link from ground zero.
“The donors have been very generous, the operation in getting it from all over the world to this part of the world has been a success and very quick, but now we have the bottleneck, and of course it has to be that the Government of Israel in the first instance has to find operational solutions to get the crossing points open,” he said, noting that only about 100 truckloads are crossing daily.
This compared with a daily average of 130 trucks in the second half of last year before the huge new demands stemming from the massive devastation wrought by the three-week offensive launched by Israel with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks.
The military operation claimed over 1,300 lives, 412 of them children, wounded more than 5,450, 1,855 of them children, and destroyed or damaged 20,000 buildings and much infrastructure.
The UN has estimated that some 600 trucks a day are necessary to keep Gaza running, even before the current damage. Israel has cut back supplies and closed the crossings frequently for security reasons and in response to rocket attacks. “The bottom line is the people here need that food and the other supplies, they need it right now, and of course that’s what’s feeding their misery and their anger,” Mr. Ging said.
“I’m not saying that the entire population has turned over to extremism, I’m saying that there’s more of it than there was before. But of course the majority of people here are very angry,” he added, stressing that if that anger is not channelled positively into changes on the ground, “we will suffer negative consequences. A fertile ground for extremism is this misery and despair.”
Mr. Ging went to Jerusalem earlier today to meet with United States Mideast envoy George Mitchell and stressed to him that access was the key, noting that the prospect of a dignified existence for Gazans is a prerequisite for security and stability and “right now there’s no prospective of that because the crossing are effectively still closed.”
Summing up the current situation, he said UNRWA had increased the number of its food aid beneficiaries from 750,000 to 900,000 and was helping 10,000 homeless people with rental payment. Tens of thousands of others whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the Israeli bombardment have sought refuge with relatives and friends, but they need blankets and clothes.
On the positive side, electricity supply has now increased to 16 hours, compared with only eight hours last week, and the number of people without water has dropped from 500,000 to 100,000 as infrastructure repairs continue.
But in an example of the difficulties UNRWA faces, Israel today banned the import of plastic bags which the agency needs for its 20,000 daily food parcels. UN officials are trying to find out why.
“We know the crossing points can be opened if there’s political will,” Mr. Ging concluded.
Meanwhile, UN human rights officials are following up reports that Palestinians from the rival Fatah party have been killed and harassed by Hamas.
And the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that almost all of Gaza’s 13,000 families who depend on farming, herding and fishing suffered damage to their assets during the conflict, with many farms completely destroyed.
“Farmers already struggling to make a profit before the outbreak of the conflict are now facing the possible irreversible loss of their livelihoods, as they are unable to replace or repair destroyed equipment, land and livestock,” FAO Senior Project Coordinator in Jerusalem Luigi Damiani said. “For many women whose husbands were killed or injured during the conflict it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide food for their families.”
FAO is already planning emergency agricultural rehabilitation to assist the most vulnerable, including input packages of seeds, seedlings, fertilizers, feed and veterinary kits to bolster food production for the coming spring season. Aid will also focus on repairing damaged greenhouses, animal sheds, irrigation networks and water wells. The agency will need $6.5 million for these immediate activities, which will directly benefit around 27,500 people.