Please secure ceasefire, UN Gaza official tells Ban on eve of Mideast mission

13 January 2009
A Palestinian boy amidst the debris of a destroyed house in Gaza City

A senior United Nations official in Gaza warned today that “tragically the horror continues,” with 19 children reported killed and 52 injured in just the last 24 hours of Israeli-Hamas fighting, even as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the Security Council on his upcoming trip to the region to speed up diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire.

“For the Secretary-General our message will be as it has been consistently: Please, we have to get an end to the fighting, nowhere in Gaza is safe, the situation here is horrific for everybody,” 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.

“Every hour that passes here, innocent women, men and children are dying and being injured in a very brutal way,” he said, adding that the fighting overnight in Gaza City was “very excessive” as the offensive which Israel launched with the stated aim of stopping Hamas rocket attacks against it moved towards its 19th day.

The overall toll is now put at more than 900 Palestinians killed, 42 per cent of them women and children, and some 4,000 wounded, nearly 50 per cent women and children. Mr. Ging said that, as with the reported child casualties over the past 24 hours, the UN had been unable to verify the numbers, but the Palestinian reports have seemed credible. There has been a massive amount of destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and homes, he added.

He paid particular tribute to the Palestinian ambulance drivers. “For me the bravest are the ambulance drivers. They’re the ones, and the ambulance staff, that are going right in to the frontline where they’re shooting and firing to rescue those who have been injured and get them the life-saving treatment that they need,” he said. “More lives will be lost every day and every night but for their tremendous courage and bravery under fire.”

Mr. Ban told the Council in closed consultations that at each stop on his trip beginning in Cairo tomorrow he would stress to the leaders of Egypt, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria the vital need for an immediate and durable ceasefire and for the urgent provision of humanitarian aid without restriction.

At a news conference yesterday he laid out the basic essentials for settling the crisis at talks with the parties underway in Cairo: agreement on an immediate ceasefire, with at a minimum a halt to rocket attacks by Hamas militants and withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza; international cooperation to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza; and full re-opening of border crossings into Gaza.

Mr. Ging said 5,000 more people fled their homes overnight seeking shelter in UNRWA schools, bringing the total to 40,000, although this represented only a fraction of those seeking refuge, since many others had gone to relatives and friends. He paid homage to the dignity of the people as they sought to cope with the horrors of the crisis.

Assistance was getting through some of the crossings from Israel, with 90 trucks passing today but that, together with the daily three-hour lull instituted by Israel to allow for distribution, was not nearly sufficient, he said. Shortage of flour was still a major problem, and fuel was still lacking with the Gaza power station operating at only 40 per cent capacity.

Sewage pumps are still not functioning due to the lack of electricity, diminished fuel supplies for back-up generators, and the lack of spare parts, 500,000 Gazans still do not have access to running water, and 80 per cent of drinking water is not safe for human consumption, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, while in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, sewage is flowing in the streets.

Mr. Ging said public health was “a very real concern” with the possibility of cholera or other disease outbreaks, as Israel’s daily three-hour lulls were not nearly enough time to repair the destroyed water infrastructure.

He also reiterated his call for an independent investigation, and accountability, over Israel’s deadly mortar attack near an UNRWA school and bombing of a house in Zaitoun last week amid continuing conflicting reports about the incidents. But he said he “very much appreciated” Israeli cooperation on UN aid delivery after last week’s killing of an UNRWA driver in an authorized run, highlighting a marked improvement in coordinating convoys for food and medicine.

He stressed, however, how difficult it was to deliver aid in a conflict zone, noting that while he was at an Israeli checkpoint at Netzarim today they came under attack.

And on a more personal level, he bemoaned the ongoing lack of cash in the blockaded strip, noting that he had been told yesterday that Israeli approval for a transfer had been given yesterday, but now was told it had not.

The shortage has kept 94,000 special hardship cases, “the poorest of the poor,” from receiving any UN cash aid since 18 November, while his own staff got only half of their December salaries. “Of course they (my staff) reminded me today – and I have to take it on the chin – that the Hamas staff have all been paid (by Hamas),” he said.


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