REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
8 August 2014
Yvette Morris, Chief, Radio and Television section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization and the World Food Programme.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the situation was extremely fluid this morning in Gaza after the expiration of the 72 hour ceasefire. OCHA had received reports that some hostilities had taken place; with rockets being fired into Israel, and the other way around. People in Gaza were very reluctant to leave their homes. They feared that the hostilities would intensify once again, OCHA staff on the ground reported.
The United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, James Rawley, urged a continuation of the ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, said Mr. Laerke.
During the first 48 hours of the pause in hostilities rescue teams were able to retrieve additional bodies in Gaza, which yesterday brought the cumulative death toll of Palestinians to 1,869, of whom 1,380 were believed to be civilians, said Mr. Laerke.
Humanitarian workers were also able to deliver food rations to hundreds of thousands of people during the pause. Some vital repairs to water and sanitation infrastructure were initiated. Hundreds of tonnes of debris were removed from Gaza refugee camps, and some medical supplies were brought in.
A particular issue that came up as people were able to get out of their houses and get into the streets was that there were thousands of ‘explosive remnants of war’, which was a technical term for the unexploded ammunition that was lying around in the rubble and elsewhere. It was of particular concern to children. It was of concern for farmers, who were trying to go back and tend to their land. And it was of particular concern to humanitarian workers and of course for those internally displaced persons who were trying to return home, said Mr. Laerke.
Much of the unexploded ammunition shells and other types of ammunition lay within what Israel declared the buffer zone, which was a three-kilometre wide strip of land inside Gaza, from which everybody was asked to leave. A lot of that was farming land. There was mine-risk education targeting families, particularly in the most at-risk areas, Mr. Laerke added.
OCHA estimated that some 65,000 people had had their homes completely destroyed or bombed to a state where they were completely uninhabitable. All those displaced needed food, drinking water, water for domestic use, sanitation and hygiene. Hundreds of thousands of children had been deeply traumatized and required direct psycho-social support.
OCHA launched the Gaza crisis appeal a week ago, which was available online, and outlined the planned humanitarian response of the country team, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. It requested US$367 million for immediate assistance to the population of Gaza. The projects included food, health, nutrition, protection, water and sanitation, as well as education, and coordination and support services. Of the US$367 million it was food security and shelter which needed the largest amount – US$293 million altogether.
Chris Tidey, for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), announced that the number of child casualties during this conflict now exceeded the combined number of children killed in the two previous conflicts in Gaza. The numbers killed in previous conflicts were 350 in 2008 to 2009, and 35 in 2012.
No children were reported killed since the announcement of the 72-hour ceasefire on 5 August. However, the number of child casualties continued to rise as children were recovered from the rubble of houses and due to the ongoing verification of the information.
At least 447 Palestinian children were reported killed between 8 July and 5 August 2014 said Mr. Tidey. The child casualties included 277 boys and 170 girls, aged between 10 days and 17 years old.
Of the 447 children, at least 305 child casualties, or 68 per cent, were 12 years old or younger. Of the 170 girls, 126 casualties, or 74 per cent, were 12 years old or younger. Children made up approximately 30 per cent of all civilian casualties, he added.
On water and sanitation, Mr. Tidey said United Nations colleagues in Gaza confirmed that Gaza’s families were struggling to obtain clean water to drink and maintain adequate hygiene after 28 days of armed conflict had damaged critical infrastructure.
Clean water for drinking, bathing and washing up was very limited before the conflict. Even before the hostilities started, only five percent of Gaza’s underground water had been found safe for human consumption, said Mr. Tidey. Desalinization plants relied on electricity to operate, but multiple airstrikes on Gaza’s only power plant in July added to an already long existing power shortage. Rolling power cuts now extended up to 22 hours daily. Approximately only 11 per cent of Gaza’s energy needs were being met.
Most Gazans had to cope with severe shortages in water and power services. Water and sewage pumps, waste water treatment plants and desalination plants would all be unable to function properly until a solution is found to the energy crisis.
In UNICEF’s most recent estimates, some 500,000 litres of fuel were needed to power generators in place of the regular electricity supply. Import of fuel had been restricted due to Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip. More detailed information was available for journalists, Mr. Tidey added.
Paul Garwood, for the World Health Organization (WHO), gave an update on the health situation in Gaza after speaking to the WHO Gaza office this morning. Mr. Garwood reported that his colleagues feared the resumption of hostilities would result in an increase in the stress on the health system which was already catering over 9,500 wounded people. There was a fear that number would only increase, potentially today.
More than half of Gaza’s hospitals had been damaged. Over one third of the 75 clinics operated by the Ministry of Health and UNRWA had been closed. Nine hospitals had been closed. Those closures occurred in a health system which prior to the conflict was already suffering from 30 per cent shortages, said Mr. Garwood.
There were fears of an outbreak of communicable diseases due to the high number of displaced people, the challenges in accessing safe water and the high overcrowding in many of the facilities for displaced people, Mr. Garwood reported.
The main issues were to ensure the safety of healthcare workers and health facilities and to ensure to continuation of healthcare. Mr. Garwood gave an example of at least three ambulance workers who had been reported killed in Rafah. He also underlined the importance of the strengthening the health system. More medicines were needed, as well as staff. Some 40 per cent of hospital staff had been unable to work, causing therefore high fatigue among staff who continued to work and had been working around the clock for the last four weeks.
Mr. Garwood said the latest WHO situation report for Gaza, on the health system, was available at the back of the room.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), briefed on the food situation in Gaza. As of 5 August, WFP had reached more than 329,000 conflict affected people in Gaza with emergency food assistance.
Following the announcement of the 72-hours ceasefire, WFP also started its regular in-kind food distributions in Gaza targeting 85,000 people.
WFP also launched a large scale bread distribution, purchasing bread in Jerusalem and the West Bank and transporting it to Gaza. That had relieved the pressure on Gaza bakeries, which saw a threefold increase in bread customers as electricity cuts left people unable to bake bread at home.
Ms. Byrs emphasized that there had been a 71 per cent increase in the price of vegetables since the start of the conflict. The lack of adequate quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the rising prices for those food commodities, required an increase in efforts in bringing food into Gaza that were rich in vitamins and minerals.
WFP Logistics also opened three new warehouses for the use of WFP and partners in Rafah, the Middle Area and in Khan Younis in Gaza, stated Ms. Byrs.
Questions on Gaza
A journalist asked how many injured children were in Gaza currently. Mr. Tidey replied that as reports were still coming in the numbers were in flux, but according to Ministry of Health figures, some 2,877 children had been injured in Gaza.
How much humanitarian access was achieved during the ceasefire , a journalist asked. Mr. Laerke replied that it was very difficult, and the very large amount of unexploded ordinance lying around was a major restriction to the humanitarian response, which made it very difficult for aid workers, and first and foremost the people themselves to come out. One must not forget that the Palestinians themselves were the first aid workers, said Mr. Laerke
WHO asked for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor days ago, said a journalist, enquiring whether it had been established. Mr. Garwood responded that WHO had seen in many instances that the humanitarian space was not enabled sufficiently enough to get people to the healthcare they deserved, because of the insecurity.
A journalist asked whether any pledges had been made to the Emergency Appeal yet, including by Israel. Had OCHA asked Israel for compensation for the destruction in Gaza, especially for the destruction of United Nations property, the journalist asked.
Mr. Laerke said he would check which pledges had been made. He explained that a US$700 million Strategic Response Plan was already in place for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, covering Gaza and the West Bank. Some of those projects had been folded into, realigned, sharpened and prioritized into the new Gaza Crisis Appeal. OCHA’s main message was there was a US$360 million appeal from all agencies, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), to assist in Gaza.
So far there had been no contributions from Israel, said Mr. Laerke. As a matter of policy OCHA did not ask any particular donor to fund any particular project. Rather OCHA presented the requirements to donors who funded appeals that they wanted to fund.
Were children being targeted, and if so, could it amount to a crime against humanity, a journalist asked. Mr. Tidey replied that that there had been any explicit targeting was not something UNICEF colleagues on the ground were suggesting. Rather, the issue was that there was no safe space for children to go. A lot of fire power was being directed at a very small geographical area. When homes were collapsing and shells were coming through the walls, the children simply had nowhere to go.
A journalist asked for a clarification about the number of non-civilian deaths in Gaza. He also asked about the United Nations position on whether armed groups in Gaza had used human shields.
Mr. Laerke replied that 1,869 Palestinians had died in the conflict. Of those an estimated 1,380 were civilians, giving a difference of 489. That difference broke down to 272 persons who had not yet been identified and 217 members of armed groups.
Ms. Morris added that there was no proof that civilians had been used of human shields, and further, the Secretary-General and other senior United Nations officials had said that even if there had been indiscriminate placement of missiles it was no excuse or reason to bomb civilians. The United Nations was not in a position to say any more.
Ravina Shamsadani, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), answered a question about the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Gaza, set up at the end of the recent Special Session. Ms. Shamsadani said the President of the Human Rights Council would appoint the Commissioners, who were requested to report to the twenty-eighth session of the Council, in March 2015.