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January 21, 2009

UNRWA Chief Appalled at Israeli Destruction in Gaza


by Thalif Deen

When Israel went on a military rampage during its 22-day air strikes and artillery attacks on Gaza, it largely singled out residential neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, and UN buildings on the pretext of targeting Hamas fighters.

But John Ging, director of operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), based in Gaza, kept insisting there were no Hamas fighters anywhere in the vicinity of UN-run schools or warehouses.

"What we have regretted in the past is that we have not been given a hearing to answer," he told reporters Monday.

He charged that most of the allegations made by Israel were "unsubstantiated, unfounded – and continue to be repeated."

Perhaps his strongest indictment of the Israelis was reflected in his response to a question on military tactics: "We don't, in a civilized world, shoot the hostage to get to the hostage-taker."

But in reality that was what the Israelis were doing in Gaza, says an Arab diplomat, echoing Ging's comment.

"The Israelis violated every single international convention governing the rules of war and the treatment of civilians," he told IPS. "Their military excesses can, in no way, be justified."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who praised Israel at a press conference in Jerusalem last week, describing the Jewish state as "a responsible member of the United Nations," apparently had second thoughts when he saw the devastation caused in Gaza.

Standing outside a UN compound that was destroyed by Israel, Ban told reporters Tuesday: "I am just appalled. Everyone is smelling this bombing still. It is still burning. It is an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations."

Despite pleas from the secretary-general, Israel bombed UN-run facilities, including schools and warehouses, on four different occasions.

One of the bomb attacks on the UNRWA compound took place on the same day Ban arrived in Israel.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the final tally read: 1,314 Palestinians killed, including 416 children and 106 women; 5,320 injured, including 1,855 children and 795 women.

In comparison, the number of Israelis killed included four civilians and nine soldiers, along with 84 injured.

And according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the buildings destroyed included 4,100 residential homes (with 17,000 damaged), 20 mosques, 25 educational institutions and medical facilities, 31 security offices, 16 government buildings, and 1,500 factories and shops.

The Office of the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator pointed out that 16 health facilities and an equal number of ambulances were destroyed or damaged during the 22-day conflict.

Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Palestine Studies, told IPS: "The scale of the devastation is such that Israel and its supporters are unlikely to be able to bury or bulldoze it out of the collective conscience of the world."

There have already been calls to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders, she pointed out.

Although the formal wheels of international justice may grind slowly, citizens are not waiting.

"Trade unions in different parts of the world are calling for a boycott. Israel's fruit shipments are rotting in its warehouses as importers in Scandinavia, Jordan, and the UK canceled orders," she said.

In an open letter in the London Guardian last weekend, Israeli citizens themselves called on world leaders to impose sanctions against their own country: "This is the only road left. Help us all, please!"

Although a cease-fire has been declared, said Hijab, Gaza's torment and siege is not over and the UN's "We the peoples" are likely to remain mobilized until justice is done.

Speaking from Gaza, Ging told reporters that the population in Gaza remains shell-shocked, traumatized, and living in real fear.

Asked about the "most outrageous" incident he had witnessed, Ging said: "The dead children."

Meanwhile, the United Nations is expected to lead international efforts to rebuild Gaza.

But Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the external affairs commissioner of the 27-member European Union, was quoted as saying that the EU would not fund reconstruction as long as Hamas was in control of Gaza.

Humanitarian aid, however, would be provided without any conditions, she added.

Hijab told IPS that "it is almost as though there are two different worlds, with the mainstream media, European and U.S. leaders, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon living in one world."

And in the other, she said, are the leaders of the Third World, the president of the General Assembly (Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann), and millions of outraged citizens.

D'Escoto has taken a very strong stand denouncing the United Nations as ineffective in taking any action against Israel.

Hijab said the former parrot the Israeli line about Israel's need for protection while the latter exchange UN reports and eyewitness accounts of the destruction and damage to thousands of homes, schools, hospitals, and civilian infrastructure.

They also share photographs of phosphorus shells showering white flame on unprotected civilians; read about the killing of entire families among the thousands of dead and wounded; and respond with horror to the reports of women whose legs have been shorn off by new kinds of weapons, she added.

(Inter Press Service)


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  •  

    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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