United Nations Information Service
5 April 2002, Geneva
Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), spoke to journalists at the United Nations Office at Geneva through a teleconference from the UNRWA office in Jerusalem.
We would appreciate it if you can provide us with an idea of what the situation is now, what is UNRWA doing, what UNRWA is able to do given the tragic circumstances?
Thank you and thank you for this opportunity. I cannot see the many familiar faces but I recognize the voices already from listening in. The situation here is extremely serious as you all know. I have not myself been able to go to the camps (since) about a week ago or so, but I am told from the reports we are getting in from the camps, we have our staff inside there, that the situation is really unprecedented. There is this massive destruction of shelters and destruction of infrastructure, water lines; electricity is being cut off. Of course many installations that the Israeli army has used have also suffered very bad damage. It is quite appalling to see, and I have seen that myself, how some installations, for instance in the health and medical area, have been destroyed and medicines smashed, a dentists's chair kicked over and ripped out of the floor, threatening graffiti written in Hebrew on the wall. It is really not what one would expect from a disciplined army to see this kind of destruction.
What is UNRWA able to do today?
UNRWA is able to, in so far as we can get minimum cooperation from the Israeli army, but I am really talking about minimum cooperation that is typically not forthcoming, but when we get that, we can get convoys to some of the cities and camps that have been screened off or closed for all outside entry, be it humanitarian entry, the journalists as I am sure you all know, but in a few cases we have been able to get in with medicines and with food. We got into Ramallah the day before yesterday after arrangements had been made with the Israeli army. That convoy was shot at and had to be abandoned for a while until we could continue. So work for our staff is extremely dangerous. On the convoy, I can tell you an example of conditions, an UNRWA staff member and operations officer was arrested, taken away, handcuffed and blindfolded, he was put in a detention centre, on the ground, without walls, there was some corrugated roof over them so the rain only hit them occasionally. He was sitting handcuffed and blindfolded for 56 hours, without food for 52 hours, and the food we are talking about after 52 hours was a few dry crackers. These are completely unacceptable conditions for us to work under, and I must appeal very very strongly to the Israelis to observe a minimum of normal decency, not to speak of the humanitarian treaties and humanitarian law that they are obliged to obey.
What is the most dramatic situation in the occupied territories, and what do you expect the international community to do?
The situation now, as I was explaining, is very dramatic. It is most dramatic in the cities and camps in the West Bank for the moment. We had expected a major onslaught on Gaza, but that has not been forthcoming. The application of violence is very very generalized, there is not a question here of pinpointing and targeting a few suspects on a wanted list, but there is entry into homes, house after house, destruction of what is in the houses, often destruction of the houses. In the West Bank alone, we are now beginning to catch up if you will in Gaza, there are more than 2,500 destroyed or partially destroyed shelters. In Gaza, we are talking about even more. That of course puts an enormous burden on any rehabilitation of these already very very difficult and miserable human habitats we are talking about in the camps. The tasks and the challenges to the international community are many fold. Of course, first of all, but that is beyond my own remit in a humanitarian organization, is whatever contribution can be made to prolific solutions to the country. There can only be political solutions. All talk and thinking about military solutions seem not to take place on this planet, certainly not in this region. On top of that, or in addition to that, we have a very very heavy mandate to limit the damage, do whatever we can do, and hopefully set about a support for the situation back to normalcy. I say back to normalcy because we cannot accept that the levels of violence and counter-violence that we are now seeing here are becoming part of normal life. But unfortunately, it might be becoming so. That will all require that the international community is equipped to do the task, and here I mean equipped not only with the kind of staff that we have seen work heroically over the past days or weeks, but also resources to provide medicine, to provide food, to provide other basic necessities of life, blankets, just a temporary a roof over the head of many of those who have become homeless.
Of course, on the longer term, if we can really think much about the longer term now, it is to get back to support institutions that we saw up until the time that these institutions were subjected to a rather savage attack to wipe them out.
Mr. Hansen, the international community is fine, but it is an abstract entity. Have you been thinking to perhaps call for the cooperation or intervention of General Zinni who is in the area, or is that outside your remit? And as a follow-up to this, do you think that things will be looking up once and if Mr. Colin Powell gets to the region next week?
I have been working very closely with (the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process) Terje Roed-Larsen who has been in contact continuously with Mr. Zinni. Mr. Larsen has expressed himself very strongly in support of what we have been saying in UNRWA. First of all, and most important of all, has been the very strong support that the Secretary-General has given us both in his various interventions in the Security Council and in his letter to Prime Minister Sharon. I think what we are needing is not so much support from where we can get it but it is a response from the Israelis to assist us. I fully realize, and let me emphasize that the Israeli civilian population there is suffering very very badly too, it is a society under siege, living in fear, living in increasing anger. But the way which the policy responses are building up in Israel against abominable suicide bombers can only deepen the spiral of mutual hatred and greater violence in the region. It is necessary to put the political horizon clearly in front of everybody. I hope very much, and I understand from President Bush's speech, that this is the realization that he has come to, and the purpose for which Mr. Powell will come to the region. We must hope that this is more than a glimmer of hope, that indeed things will be taken into hand so that this amorphous entity we talk about, the international community, can make a real impact on the situation. Because if it cannot, I am afraid we are looking forward to, if you can imagine that, even worse conditions than we are living through now.
Mr. Hansen, I assume you are speaking to us from Gaza, but if I am mistaken, then please correct me.
I am speaking to you from Jerusalem where I was attending a security meeting.
There are dead people in the camps and elsewhere who have not been buried until now. Would you appeal to the religious leadership of the world to exert pressure on Israel to allow at least the dead to be buried in decency. Second question, your people have entered Ramallah. Could you tell us about the situation of the presidential compound first hand, and how are President Arafat and the people surrounding him.
Yes I think it is particularly appalling that religious observance in connection with death and burial have been so grossly violated. And I do appeal to everybody to respect the basic religious (inaudible), something that the Israeli population of Judaic tradition can understand very well. I hope that it can be respected, but the incidences of mass graves, of people dying in houses, bleeding to death, and then being impossible to remove them. I spoke to a family in a camp recently where they had to make the burial in their own little courtyard within their shelter. These are conditions which remind me of the worst days in Angola where people in besieged cities had to bury their dead in the small piece of land still available. And on the situation in the compound, I have not been myself in the compound since it was attacked, so I only know it from second hand sources as you would know. I think it would not serve any purpose for me to try to embroider on eye witness accounts from inside there. It sounds like a gruesome situation, and I am sure it is, without water, electricity, it must be very difficult to function. We have had requests for help to the people inside, but there is no way that we can get in with any help when not even Mr. Solana and Foreign Minister Pique could come into contact with people in the compound.
Mr. Hansen, do you have a rough estimate of how many people have died in the last few days.
Over the last few days, well over the last 24 hours, 18 have been killed, and over the last five days, there have been in addition to that 73 Palestinians fatalities, 246 casualties, nine Israeli Defense Force (IDF) police fatalities, and some 30 casualties. So there have been heavy losses on both sides. But as you should know over the long picture, by a very large factor, the majority of them have been Palestinians.
How many people are you actually able to reach with the aid necessary, how many people need aid but you are unable to access them in any way. And we are talking about the casualties, are you having difficult in having the Red Crescent ambulances come into the compounds. Are they prevented from doing this and bringing the sick and wounded to hospitals?
In response to the last part of the question, yes, we have experienced difficulties with ambulances, both our own UNRWA ambulances as well as the ICRC and Red Crescent ambulances which are more numerous than our own. Many many ambulances have been hit, we are talking about four drivers being killed, three doctors being killed, 122 doctors and drivers injured. So you can see, the number of ambulances hit is no less than 185. I would strongly suggest that when 185 ambulances have been hit, including 75 per cent of UNRWA's ambulances, one of our staff was killed in an ambulance, this is not the result of stray bullets by mistake, this can only be by targeting ambulances. We have more than 350 cases of ambulances denied access to rescue and the stories of children being born in ambulances, the checkpoints are increasing in numbers, even though I cannot give you a number of that, I saw such a baby in a camp a few days ago. The first part of the question was ...
Yes Mr. Hansen, the first part of the question was how many people are you actually able to reach with aid and how many are you unable to reach?
Yes, when we made our appeal, we had a programme to aid with food aid 130,000 families in Gaza, multiply that by 6 and you get the number of people we are targeting in Gaza, and about 90,000 families in the West Bank. What we can say is that many many of these people have fortunately been able to get their rations and their food aid, but a very large number, and I am sorry that I cannot give you a precise number because we do not know until we can get access to see exactly how many we have not been able to reach, but just for the food aid, there are many we cannot reach. There are many people who cannot reach our clinics and where we cannot reach them because of roadblocks, and all kinds of obstacles that you cannot move around on the ground. So we are not reaching as many as we need to reach. That is why I keep appealing very strongly to the Israelis to allow us to reach these civilians in need. It serves no purpose I can see, except increasing hatred and bitterness, to deny the civilian population access to the minimum services and assistance that UNRWA, the Red Crescent Society and others can bring them.
You mentioned earlier that Mr. Larsen has been in contact with Mr. Zinni. Has Mr. Larsen or yourself been in contact with the Israeli Government, in particular Foreign Minister Peres, and what responses are you getting from the Israeli Cabinet to your requests.
Well, I know that both Mr. Larsen and I have had difficulties in getting much response. By now, I do not have a count of how many times I have written the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Head of the Administration of the Territories, I have written numerous letters. So far, I do not have a response to a single one of these letters. However, we are not giving up writing, protesting, reminding them of international law and international obligations. And we are refusing to let the situation become so normal that we even forget or give up writing about it. I am very disappointed, to make an understatement, that we have not had any more response than we have had, and only very feeble efforts to judge from the results from low-ranking members of the military forces to try to help a car through a check point or an ambulance. That is simply not enough for the State of Israel to live up to its international obligations.
What is your opinion about the UN Commission on Human Rights considering sending an observer team out to the territories. Do you think that can be helpful, that they will actually be able to get through to observe anything? And secondly, apparently the Israeli public, in terms of opinion polls, has increased Sharon's ratings this month over last month. I find that quite appalling considering everything that is happening.
A strong (inaudible) is always made on observance. You cannot go to a camp or to another exposed Palestinian habitat without hearing anguished cries of why don't we get protection and observers, let the world see what is going on here. The Palestinians are very keen to have in this instance as much transparency, openness, observation as possible of the situation. But as you know, the Israelis have denied and refused entry. There cannot be any real observers coming in and operating on this territory unless it is with Israeli, at least acquiescence, that so far has not been forthcoming. The other part of the question was ...
Israel's public opinion is apparently supporting Mr. Sharon's moves against the Palestinians, this onslaught, which we have not seen a precedent to since 1982.
I find that very very strange myself. I do believe that in Jewish tradition, there is a very strong element of humanistic life respecting that I would hope to see more stronger reflected in the current situation than it is. And I would certainly also have hoped to see it reflected in the opinion polls. But what I said before, that (with) this kind of violence, the Israelis feel under siege too. So objectively, that is a fact for them, and with the violence and counter violence, hatred seems to be growing on both sides. And it bodes very very badly for future talk of reconciliation and peace and mutual understanding. Every day that passes with this kind of situation going on will bring us further along from the day where we can realistically talk about people sitting down and working out, searching for real solutions.
Sir, would you remind us how long UNRWA has been in existence and, in your experience and opinion, who must be responsible for the continued presence of these refugees locked up in these camps, and why have the world community, or the Arab and Muslim community, or just the Israelis, waited this long for this violence to solve the problem. And a quick second question. It is alleged that several ambulances of Palestinians had been found to contain hidden bombs or soldiers. Do you know if that is true, and approximately how many were might have been?
UNRWA is very unfortunate in its longevity compared to what most people hoped for. We would have hoped to have been put out of our existence by a solution of the problem many years ago. UNRWA was established in 1949, so from that time, we are going on our fifty-third year. And when we then had to look after a refugee population of 800,000, we are today talking about a number that is five times as large as that, as the descendants of the original refugees are also registered with us. When it comes to who is responsible for the longevity of that, it is always difficult to parcel out responsibility and blame which will be met by counter blame. There are very different perceptions of the origin of the refugee issue in the official Israeli narrative from what it is the Palestinians perceive (as) their situation. There have been many missed opportunities on both sides over all these years to find solutions to the problem that would have made UNRWA superfluous. I cannot think of anything I would rather like to see than being made redundant along with all our colleagues tomorrow if we could see a solution to the refugee problem. We must support the search for one. I hope the day that we can turn the key on UNRWA has not been removed too far into the future, but I am afraid that it has because of the current crisis unless people will see how insane this is, come to their senses, and find solutions, and both parties would be able to make whatever concessions would be necessary to reach agreement.