The Ambassador hotel in Jerusalem was the setting, on Wednesday, November 26, for a press conference called under UN auspices to announce the launching of the “2009 Consolidated Appeal,” a fund-raiser with a goal of bringing in $462 million for UN and NGO humanitarian assistance programs in the “occupied Palestinian territories” (by which is meant Judea and Samaria, Gaza, and eastern Jerusalem). While 159 projects are expected to benefit, $275 million is earmarked for UNRWA – the UN Relief and Works Agency, responsible for Palestinian Arab refugees.
Presentations – by Maxwell Gaylard, UN Humanitarian Coordinator; Philippe Lazzarin, Head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and Filippo Grandi, Deputy Commissioner-General of UNRWA -. focused on the hardship endured by the “oPt” residents as a result of Israeli practices.
Of primary concern was the Israeli closure of Gaza: Gaylard reported that the Israeli position is to keep crossings into Gaza closed as long as rockets [shot from Gaza into Israel] continue, with humanitarian goods permitted to go in if the rockets stop. But, he said, with crossings frequently shut down, even basic supplies are not reaching the people.
In any event, he declared, “we want more than this.” While allowing that the rockets attacks are to be condemned, he explained that the UN wants the crossings opened more fully, with imports and exports moving in and out. What’s happening now, he stated, is “collective punishment.” When queried by a journalist as to whether he was demanding that Israel open the crossings fully even if the rockets kept flying, he skirted the question.
Lazzarin made it clear that from a UN perspective there was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Gaylord concurred, indicating it was so severe that the closure represented an “assault on every human right.”
A brief discussion was held regarding the growing number of blackouts in Gaza caused by failure of an electric transmitter, either because fuel or parts for repair were not available.
Grande lamented the fact that during the truce [the last five months of relative calm] there has been only a disappointing 20% increase in the transport of goods into Gaza, so that UNRWA still has not been able to bring in sufficient humanitarian supplies. He noted that 12 UNRWA trucks bearing supplies were expected to be allowed through that day.
A subsequent interview with Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, provided a perspective vastly at odds with that presented at the press conference. In some instances, Dror directly refuted statements made by the UN representatives:
Most significantly, he stated that it is absolutely not Israeli policy to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza only when the rockets stop. While a broader opening of the crossings is keyed to a cessation of rocket attacks, humanitarian supplies are permitted in whenever it is possible to open a crossing. Evidence of this is provided by the fact that trucks went into Gaza on November 29, the day of the press conference, even though rockets had been launched that day, and for three days prior. Grande referred to 12 UNRWA trucks, but there are also other agencies at work. In total that day, 40 trucks went through.
The point ignored by UNRWA, when it complains about closed crossings, is that the crossings themselves are often under attack – by bombs and shootings, and the Israeli operating personnel endangered. What UNRWA officials are actually demanding is that Israelis risk their lives so that goods can move through.
Yet, never, said Dror, has he heard a word regarding Hamas culpability. Never has there been a demand by the UN that terrorists stop targeting the crossings, because this makes it impossible for Israel to open them.
It is a mark of Israeli intentions that funds were spent revamping the Keren Shalom crossing to permit passage of a greater number of trucks.
Dror explained that sometimes when there is a lull in rocket launchings into Israel, the crossings are still targeted and must stay closed. But even then Gazans seeking medical help are allowed into Israel. And water and electric power supplied to Gaza by Israel continue to flow without stop. (As Israel supplies 70% of Gaza’s electric power, and Egypt another 5%, it makes little sense to talk about blackouts because a generator isn’t working.)
Dror categorically denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There are dozens of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, and every sort of material imaginable moves into Gaza, with the exception of generator fuel.
“Even cows are brought through the tunnels.”
Last January, when the fence at Rafah was breached and Gazans by the thousands moved into the Sinai, it was said these were people suffering a lack of essential goods. But, said Dror, many were seen bringing back TVs and satellite dishes.
Arlene Kushner, senior policy analyst for the Center for Near East Policy Research, writes extensively on UNRWA. Her most recent report, just completed, is “UNRWA: Overview and Policy Critique.”