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December 20, 2014
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‘We have been directly hit by Israeli artillery’

A boy looks through a hole on the wall made by the shelling at the Abu Hussein UN school in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.
By Vera Von Kreutzbruck
Herald Staff

‘It is not safe, nowhere in Gaza is,’ UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness speaks to the Herald

Since Israel launched its offensive on Gaza on July 8, one of the deadliest since its last military operation in the enclave in 2009, at least 1,500 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have been killed. Despite the increasing humanitarian crisis, record-high death toll and massive destruction of buildings, both sides of the conflict do not seem to be willing to agree to a permanent ceasefire.

Around 1.7 million people live in the densely-populated enclave and of those, over 250,000 have moved to UN shelters to seek protection from the strikes. But in spite of being in refugee centres, they are not safe. On Wednesday a UN school-turned-shelter in Jabalya was hit by Israeli artillery strikes, killing 17 civilians and destroying crucial infrastructure. The shelling marked the sixth attack on a UN facility since the offensive began almost one month ago.

In one of the strongest comments so far on the ongoing crisis UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Wednesday that “nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.” He described the latest events as “outrageous and unjustifiable”, and demanded “accountability and justice”.

Israel denials

Despite being provided the coordinates of UN buildings, the Israeli military has not explained why these places have been targeted. Moreover, the Israeli government and the Israel Defence Forces have blamed Hamas and other Palestinian factions for some of the attacks, saying that they try to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel’s closest ally, the United States had not spoken up against the carnage, but with pressure mounting up from the international community the White House on Thursday said that “the shelling (was) totally unacceptable and totally indefensible”.

Refugee relief

Although Christopher Gunness has spent a big part of his life in conflict zones, he was not prepared for the loss he suffered this week. He felt first-hand what dozens of civilians are going through these days. Gunness lost eight colleagues after one of the 90 United Nations shelters he works in was hit by Israeli artillery.

For several years now he has been living in Jerusalem, where he works as a spokesperson of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The UNRWA provides relief and social services, education, healthcare, and infrastructure to five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The former journalist’s relationship with the United Nations was sparked early on in his career in 1990 when he worked in New York as the BBC correspondent for the global institution. After covering the UN’s work on the ground in Iraq, the Balkans and most Asian countries, Gunness then shortly worked as the UN’s spokesman in the former Yugoslavia.

Over the past few days, video footage of Gunness has circulated widely on the Internet, after he gave an interview to broadcaster Al Jazeera. Speaking live, he told the channel that his agency was “at breaking point,” before breaking down in tears. Despite all his experience, the conflict in Gaza has left him heartbroken.

In a phone interview on Thursday from the Gaza Strip, Gunness spoke to the Herald about the worsening humanitarian situation and the bombings of UN shelters and schools.

How is the situation there now?

We are facing a human displacement catastrophe. There are 250,000 displaced people in around 600 hundred shelters across the Gaza Strip. These shelters are normally used as schools. The conditions inside them are appalling. For instance, in one of the shelters, which was built for 1,000 people, there have been more than 3,000 people living there for several weeks.

What kind of problems are you facing on a daily basis?

The situation is absolutely terrible. There are huge problems of hygiene and sanitation; there are problems with water, food and medicines.

And the shelters which are supposed to offer protection for Palestinian refugees are being bombed by Israeli military.

Yes, we have the situation now where we are being directly hit by Israeli artillery. It is not safe, nowhere is. We can’t even guarantee that a UN school with a blue flag on top of it is safe, and that is appalling.

Is it true that the Israeli military has been given the coordinates of the UN schools and shelters?

Yes, that is correct, they have the GPS coordinates of every single UNRWA facility, every school, shelter, clinic across the Gaza strip. And on this occasion we notified them 17 times of the coordinates of the school. But the school that was bombed was full with 3,300 people.

Don’t forget these are people that have been told to move by the Israeli Army, they have been dropping leaflets and sending text messages telling them to move. People walk through a battlefield to take shelter in the UN premises. And then the very army which told them to move, strikes them with their artillery.

What is the Israeli Army’s excuse?

I am not a spokesman for the Israeli Army, they need to make their own statements.

What about the Israeli media, what are they saying?

I am afraid I don’t speak or read Hebrew.

What do you need in order to carry out your humanitarian work in Gaza?

We need to be able to deliver aid to help the people in these shelters without having fear of being killed. Eight of our staff have been killed. We need a period of freedom, restriction of strikes to allow the materials to come in to start rebuilding.

In the long-term, what would be the solution to the conflict?

We need lasting peace and serious engagement with the underlying causes of the conflict so that this never happens again. Every two years there is a surge of violence. Among the underlying causes of the conflict is the blockade of Gaza.

@vkreutzbruck
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