15 January 2009 – At about 10 a.m. local, the first Israeli shell, from a tank or artillery, crashed into the United Nations main centre in Gaza City today, an hour after 700 Palestinians fleeing intense fighting crowded into the compound and UN officials informed Israeli liaison officers of the dangers of shelling in the area and that shrapnel was coming into the buildings.
“Before the direct strike, we were told, ‘yes we’ve registered that the shrapnel’s coming into your compound, we know the dangers, we’ve informed the operational people on the ground, don’t worry, you won’t be hit’,” the Gaza Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), John Ging, told a news conference in New York, speaking by video link from ground zero.
After the strike on the 20th day of the Israeli offensive launched with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, the Agency, which supplies aid to 750,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza, half the total population, redoubled its liaison efforts.
“We were highlighting that there were great dangers, particularly and noteworthy that we had five trucks full of fuel ready since early morning to be dispatched to re-supply various centres and also water pumping stations and sewage pumping stations and we alerted the Israeli Defence Forces of their exact location,” Mr. Ging said.
Within an hour there was a large explosion and fire erupted in the workshop area where the trucks were parked. As the trucks were moved, six other rounds were fired into the same area and international staff identified them as burning like phosphorous.
“It looked like phosphorous, it smelled like phosphorous and it burned like phosphorous, so that’s why I’m calling it phosphorous,” Mr. Ging said, speaking 60 metres from the first explosion at the vocational training centre, and 150 metres from the second, voicing amazement that only three people were injured in both incidents.
“The place went up in flames. Our workshop was the part that was hit most severely. It went on fire, as did part of the warehouse. Of course, we had to take cover until we got reassurances that there wouldn’t be further firing...There were exploding petrol tanks in the garage itself,” he added, noting that the fire service took two hours to arrive because of the fighting in the area.
“Unfortunately, it was too late to save the warehouse where we had hundreds of tons of food and medicine that were to be dispatched today to our centres, the health centres and food centres.”
It took six hours to get the fire under control and it was still smouldering hours after that. Israel said it was responding to Hamas fire from the vicinity of the UNRWA headquarters. Mr. Ging stressed that there were no militants in or firing from the compound, calling for an independent investigation.
But he emphasized that the Israeli liaison officers with whom UNRWA works are “very sincere, very conscientious and very hard-working” and were obviously passing on the details and trying to reassure the UN.
“It presents us with a new challenge,” he said of the shelling. “This was the hub of our operations, the nerve centre of our operations… But of course we have to adapt to the new challenge and we’re opening up other warehouses outside the compound so that we can keep the operation going…
“The bottom line is of course that the humanitarian plight of the people continues to necessitate our efforts here, we have to keep going notwithstanding the dangers and the risks but also the new challenges that we face. I would put it to you this way, that we had a first hand experience here today in this compound of what the poor people of Gaza have been living with on a daily basis for the last 20 days and nights,” he added.
“So our appeal is not just for the safety of the UN staff and compounds and locations and convoys but even more important, the civilian population, the innocent men, women and children who continue to die and be killed in this conflict and injured in unacceptable numbers by any measure and of course the scale of destruction continues, you would expect when built-up areas are subjected to artillery and tank fire.”
Mr. Ging said the video-conference with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was in Jerusalem on an intensive diplomatic mission to secure a ceasefire, was “a great morale booster” for all UN staff in Gaza.
“It’s hard to find the right words for the real awfulness of what is happening in Gaza currently,” UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told the same news conference, voicing his own “total sense of shock and dismay and outrage” at the UNRWA shelling. “It’s an absolute miracle that we don’t have a huge casualty list from these hits.”
Giving an overview of the Gaza situation, Mr. Holmes said the casualty figures “continue to rise in truly horrifying ways,” with the death toll reported by the Gazan Ministry of Health now standing at 1,086, of whom 346 were children and 79 women, and the injured at 4,790 – 1,709 of them children and 724 women.
On a comparable population scale that was the equivalent of having 33,000 people dead or injured in New York, or 1.2 million killed or wounded in the United States as a whole, he added.
Some 43,000 people had fled their homes to seek refuge in UNRWA schools and hundreds of thousands of others were likely seeking shelter with relatives or friends in areas of the Gaza Strip less affected by the conflict.
On a more positive note, there was an improvement in aid crossing over from Israel into Gaza with 105 trucks getting in. But that compared with 500 to 600 a day before Israel started imposing border closures in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Israel also extended its daily lull for supplies to be distributed from three hours to four hours today, but Mr. Holmes said that was still inadequate.