UN already assessing Gaza relief needs on first full day of halt to fighting

19 January 2009

19 January 2009

The United Nations has already started assessing the devastating damage and relief needs in the Gaza Strip on the first full day of a truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas, with the overall bill possibly reaching billions of dollars, amid a feeling of "overwhelming grief" among the 1.5 million inhabitants there, senior officials said today.

"The pervasive sense here among the population is one of overwhelming grief, so many families have been destroyed in so many ways," the top UN official in Gaza reported from ground zero, noting that at his last briefing on Friday he had hoped they would not have a further death toll.

"But we did, and again the number of children that were killed since Friday were 42 out of 159 in total," Gaza Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) John Ging to journalists in New York by video link, adding that two of those children died in an UNRWA school that was shelled on Saturday.

"Another terrible tragedy, two little boys, two brothers, five and seven, indisputably innocent, but also now dead," he added. "What we have now is people back out, trying to come to terms with what has happened."

According to Palestinian figures that the UN has called credible, the casualty toll from the three-week offensive, which Israel said it launched to stop Hamas rocket attacks against it from Gaza, now stands at 1,340 dead, 460 of the children and 106 women, and 5,320 wounded, 1,855 of them children and 795 women, with a large proportion of the injuries severe, including burns and amputations. Thirteen Israelis were reported killed, including four from rocket fire.

"It may not be very clear who actually won this conflict, if that concept means anything in Gaza, but it’s pretty clear who lost and that’s the civilian population of Gaza, and to a much lesser extent the civilian population of southern Israel," UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told the same news briefing, adding that he intended to visit Gaza in the next few days.

He said all the main crossings, which Israel has frequently closed in response to Hamas rocket attacks, were open today, and infrastructure repairs had allowed 100,000 more people to receive water, although 400,000 were still without it, but sewage was still flooding the streets of some towns in the north. Some 50 UN facilities were damaged.

The number of supply trucks that crossed over into Gaza today topped 170, but this was relatively few compared to the daily rate of over 600 in 2005. Mr Holmes said a Flash Appeal for urgent funding would be launched within 10 days, and while declining to give specific figures, he put the humanitarian relief needs in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the overall bill including reconstruction as likely to be in the billions.

Mr Ging said that although he expected 20,000 of the people who had sought refuge in UNRWA schools to return to their homes tonight, that would still leave 35,000 seeking shelter. Aid operations are now running at full swing and people have access to basic aid, but it will still take a couple of days to repair infrastructure to supply water, he added.

He stressed the terrible scenes of people removing bodies from the rubble. "It’s a really traumatic time for everybody," he said. There’s a sense of relief that the fighting has stopped and now the challenge facing us is daunting…

"My message to everybody is a simple one. We need to, number one, to ensure for the people of Gaza that they will be confident that accountability will be achieved for them, for their loss, through a legal process. Otherwise we concede to the agenda of extremism which is the rule of the gun. And secondly, and equally important, is to restore them to a dignified existence.

"The people here have paid the price once again. The death toll is evidence of the price they have paid. We have to prioritise them. There are political complexities, of course, to overcome operational challenges.

"But the bottom line is to restore them to a dignified existence, to give them a perspective which is positive, to mitigate against the agenda of extremism here to which violence is very much an important component. It feeds extremism and poverty and despair. To counter all of that we need to restart the economy here and that will involve opening up the crossing points, and not just for humanitarian assistance but to reactivate the economy."

The UN Development Programme (UNDP), in its capacity as facilitator of the UN early recovery team, has already announced that it will work with the West Bank Palestinian Authority to assess damage and devise plans for rebuilding. The PA is committed to a two-state solution with both Israel and Palestine living side by aside in peace, while Hamas, which seized power in Gaza from the PA in 2007, does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Immediate responses will include the removal of unexploded ordnance and the clearing of rubble so that social and economic reconstruction may begin.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) Lifeline Gaza, launched a week ago at Egypt‘s border with Gaza to raise awareness and resources for victims of the conflict, has already helped deliver urgently needed nutritious food in Khan Younis (south), Deir el Balah (centre) and Gaza City. Lifeline Gaza seeks $81 million for food and logistics for 365,000 people in peril.

Report courtesy of the UN News Service