U.N. Advocates for Gazans

By Marc Perelman

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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United Nations - The top humanitarian official at the United Nations said he found “shocking” the lack of international attention to the worsening situation in Gaza, which was caused by the Israeli blockade since Hamas took over the territory last June.

John Holmes, who serves as under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and as emergency relief coordinator, told the Forward in an interview that while he welcomed the new momentum toward a peace process provided by last month’s meeting in Annapolis, Md., the quickly deteriorating conditions facing the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza were reaching alarming levels.

“Things are getting worse and worse as the Israel blockade tightens,” he said, pointing to Israel’s announcement in late October that it would cut fuel and electricity delivery to Gaza in response to rocket attacks from the territory. “This does not happen in a political vacuum, and it’s hard to see how it’s not counterproductive.”

Israeli officials contend that they are forced to impose strict measures as a response to shelling from Gaza into Israel and to prevent infiltration by terrorist groups. They say that Hamas’s popularity has been waning as the group faces blame from the local population for the worsening day-to-day situation.

Though Holmes, who is British, said he understood Israel’s security worries, he also said, “Israel, as the occupying power, is responsible for the well-being of people in Gaza.” He added that some of Israel’s new restrictions, as well as lack of Palestinian access to emergency health care, could constitute violations of international humanitarian law.

The Karni Crossing, the main civilian crossing point between Israel and Gaza and the only one equipped to handle cargo containers, has been closed since June 12, after Hamas violently took over Gaza. The Israeli military has directed emergency supplies through two smaller passage points, but these have been periodically shut down, as well.

While the U.N. was able to send some 3,000 truckloads of aid into Gaza in July, the number dropped by half in September, Holmes said. He urged Israel to allow the aid to resume, and voiced concern that poverty and unemployment rates in Gaza were reaching record levels. “People are not dying of hunger, but the level of desperation is pretty high,” he said. “The key is to open the crossing points.… The Israelis understand it, but they tell us they worry about security.”

Holmes expressed hope that the United States and the European Union, which have declared Hamas a terrorist entity and have curtailed their own financial aid to Gaza as a result, would impress upon Israeli officials the need to improve the situation in Gaza.


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