'The Present Is Tragic But The Future Is Unthinkable' In Gaza

More than 240,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced from their homes by fighting between Israel and militant groups, the United Nations said on Wednesday. Most of them have sought refuge in schools run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

More than 20 days into the fighting, UNRWA's shelters in the north of Gaza and in Gaza City have reached capacity. Five UN-run schools that sheltered thousands of displaced have been hit in the past weeks, leaving dozens of people dead.

The WorldPost spoke to UNRWA's Spokesperson based in Jerusalem, Chris Gunness, about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

What options do civilians have left to find safety now that UNRWA shelters are reaching capacity?

Our shelters are overflowing. There are 2,000 to 3,000 people per shelter on average, and the number of displaced continues to rise. We'll soon be in a situation where there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of Gaza, no food, no water, no electricity, nowhere to run. We have reached a breaking point.

The time for humanitarian action alone has passed. Now its time for political action in order to bring about an end to the fighting. For the people of Gaza, that moment cannot come soon enough.

Four times as many people have relocated to UNRWA facilities in the past weeks than during the last major confrontation between Israel and Gaza, in 2008-2009. Why are so many more displaced this time around?

The Israeli military leafletted huge areas and told people to leave their homes. You need to ask the Israeli government why they've decided to displace all these people.

How is UNRWA coping with this huge demand for shelter?

We're overwhelmed. We just don't have enough of anything. UNRWA does not have unlimited capacity to carry on dealing with the consequences of what is going on. The parties to the conflict are responsible for the consequences to civilians of their military actions under international humanitarian law.

Imagine what is going to happen when the war is over. We are going to have several hundred thousand people -- many of whose homes have been completely destroyed -- stuck in our schools. They've got nowhere to go back to. Even if they still have homes there'd be no water, electricity, because thats all been blown up, too. The present is tragic but the future is absolutely unthinkable.

Can UN facilities still provide a safe refuge to Palestinian civilians in Gaza after the recent attacks on UN schools?

No, absolutely not. On six occasions, five UNRWA facilities have been hit, in two cases with profoundly tragic consequences -- with multiple deaths, multiple injuries, including women and children. That really illustrates how this war is being executed with a disregard for civilian life.

Gaza is a conflict with a fence around it. It is unique in the annals of contemporary warfare. There's nowhere safe to run and now there's nowhere safe to hide.

Israel has said militant groups have made use of UNRWA facilities in Gaza and has criticized the agency for handing over weapons found on its premises to Palestinian officials. What is UNRWA doing to prevent its facilities being used for weapons storage or militant operations by groups in Gaza?

We found weapons caches in empty schools that UNRWA is not actively using on three occasions. When we found the weapons during our regular inspections, we proactively told all the relevant parties, including Israel. We came out with a very strong public condemnation of the flagrant violation of our neutrality, and we took steps that are obligatory for a UN humanitarian operation anywhere in the world, which is to get in the local bomb disposal experts to make the area safe. Remember there was an urgent security imperative to make sure that civilians were not hurt should the weapons have detonated.

This idea that we somehow chucked them in the back of a truck, or that we should have driven them through a conflict zone and given them to the Israelis is absurd. It shows how little understanding the people who are accusing us of these things have of the constraints of a neutral humanitarian organization working on a battlefield.

What are your concerns about the longer term impact of the conflict in Gaza?

The prospects are absolutely appalling. After Operation Cast Lead (the last major conflict in 2008-9) billions were spent on reconstruction. UNRWA was in the middle of reconstructing some 10,000 homes and shelters and 100 schools when this fresh round of wholesale destruction started.

And now we've got perhaps more destruction. Its hard to do a proper assessment until the conflict is over. Its not even over yet, so goodness only knows where we're going to be at the end, goodness knows how long it will take to begin this reconstruction, and goodness knows how much money it will take.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT

White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting

From Reuters:

The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.

"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.

08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT

Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza

Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.


The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT

Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue

From Reuters:

Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.

"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."

Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.

08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT

Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks

Reuters reports:

Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT

Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume

08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT

Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks

A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.

The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.

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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT

Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire

From Reuters:

Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.

Hamas had no immediate comment.

08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT

IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm

08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT

Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border

ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.

08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT

Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect

Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.

Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.

Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.

The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.

The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.

Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.

Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.