UN lifts suspension of Gaza food imports after Hamas returns stolen aid

9 February 2009
Food awaiting distribution in UNRWA warehouse

The main United Nations relief agency responsible for feeding 900,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza today lifted its suspension of aid imports after Hamas returned all the aid it had stolen last week.

But the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) warned that its distribution operation continued to be jeopardized by Israel’s refusal to let in materials for plastic bags, more than three weeks after the end of the devastating offensive it launched with the stated aim of halting Hamas and other rocket attacks against it.

UNRWA Director of Operations in Gaza John Ging said Hamas had returned all the aid stolen on two occasions last week, including 300 tons of food, and assured the Agency that there would not be a reoccurrence, a condition UNRWA had demanded to resume its import operations.

“Our confidence in those assurances is based on the return itself and the realization, I believe, among the leadership of Hamas that this is not acceptable to the people here in Gaza,” he told a news conference in New York by video-link from ground zero.

“We had extremely strong support from the community here who demand respect for UNRWA on the ground and have no tolerance for any theft from our resources or aid,” he said, adding that imports would resume on Wednesday since all crossings will be closed tomorrow due to Israel’s general elections.

Mr. Ging, who denied Hamas claims that some UNRWA aid was being given to Hamas rivals Fatah, voiced frustration at the limited access Israel is granting at the crossing points into Gaza, including the ban on the import of bulk plastic needed to package the food aid.

“We ran out of plastic today for the plastic bags to distribute the food so we had to go to the local market here; it’s of course an unreliable market and it’s also a very expensive market but we have to somehow keep going until sense prevails and they allow us to bring in the plastic pellets to make the plastic bags,” he said.

“We have 900,000 people queuing up for food at UNRWA, and we’re only getting through them at 30,000 a day because that’s all the food we can get in,” he added. “The plight of the people is extremely bad, as we should all know by now. We’re struggling to get in the quantities that are needed, and failing I might add.”

He voiced particular exasperation at the ban on importing paper which UNRWA needs for printing school text books and a new curriculum on human rights, calling it shameful, appealing for common sense to prevail, and stressing that the new rights programme would instil in the young how wrong it is to fire rockets.

Speaking at the same news conference from New York, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy echoed the appeal for Israel to fully open the crossing points and allow in a wider range of items. Only about 200 trucks are getting in daily and the UN has said at least 600 a day are necessary even without counting the latest devastation.

Ms. Coomaraswamy, who has just returned from a tour of Gaza, the West Bank and southern Israel, target of Hamas rocket attacks, described the anger and despair she encountered, stressing that an international enquiry and accountability were crucial for channelling these emotions away from violence.

She called for psycho-social support for children both in Gaza and in Ashkelon, Israel, for “the terrible trauma, especially children in Gaza because they’ve witnessed the violence to their family members in very acute terms.”

Describing the impact of the bombings on children, she cited a Gaza child who drew a picture of a plane dropping bombs on a house while a tank stood to one side and a soldier to the other, both opening fire; another child told her that her mother had died in her arms.

In Ashkelon, children were petrified from the constant shelter drills because of Hamas rockets, while in the West Bank Ms. Coomaraswamy said she had been given short shrift when she discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, so great was the anger.

Summarizing her conclusions she said: “Israel, I demand, please open the crossings at Karni and Sufa, and expand the list of articles that can be admitted into Gaza… As regard to Hamas, I demand that they stop the rocket fire that falls indiscriminately, and also that they respect the integrity of international aid and not allow it to be diverted.”

Almost two-thirds of the households polled in a survey by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) identified emotional and psychological aid as a top priority, followed by employment, housing, financial support and medical attention.

With regards to children, the survey cited signs of stress, such as bedwetting, nightmares, aggressive behaviour and anxiety.

Meanwhile, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has launched five projects to restore quality educational services at all levels in Gaza, and a sixth to strengthen the safety of journalists and enhance freedom of the press.


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